MINI-REVIEW: Marguerite Kaye’s FROM GOVERNESS TO COUNTESS

From_Governess_To_CountessWhether it was my mood, or a super-busy two weeks, I slogged through the first in Kaye’s new series, From Governess to Countess. If I had to give you a baseline of my narrative immersion, it’d be: perked up to the premise, dragged my way through two-thirds and zipped through the last. Kaye’s novel is well-researched, with a fascinating and nicely developped setting, a lovely heroine and engaging secondary characters. The hero, on the other hand, is concocted out of bleached-out niceness and a copious dose of cluelessness.

I loved the premise: a mysterious “Procurer,” a woman, in 1815 London, seeks out disgraced women to offer them a task that may reestablish their finances and reputation. She is a “procurer” of second chances and her first mission is Miss Allison Galbraith, a Scottish herbalist, whose work has been derided by London’s medical establishment. The Procurer offers Allison a job, in St. Petersburg, as governess to the three orphaned children of Duke and Duchess Derevenko, presently in the care of their military-officer Uncle Aleksei, recently returned from defeating Napoleon.       Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Susanna Fraser’s A CHRISTMAS REUNION, or Love Over the Wassail Bowl

Christmas_ReunionMiss Bates read one Susanna Fraser Regency-set romance, The Sergeant’s Lady, and enjoyed it, especially its exposition of a cross-class romance in the loosening of social strictures during wartime. Fraser’s latest, the Regency-set romance novella, “A Christmas Reunion,” echoes many of the same themes: an upper-class lady-love, an officer returned from the Napoleonic conflict in Portugal and Spain, and strong, enduring feelings from when he left five years ago. Unlike The Sergeant’s Lady, “A Christmas Reunion” has the added poignancy of the hero, Captain Gabe Shephard, and heroine, Lady Catherine Trevilian, as reunited sweethearts, a passion they staunched because of their unequal social status. Gabe has returned to the home in which he grew up, the “bastard” son of an aristocratic family, and the adopted wealthy, aristocratic girl they succored, to ensure that a foundling child, the irrepressibly cute Ellen, finds a home and family away from war. He returns to the scene of his youthful love, still burning strong for “Lady Cat” as he calls her, hoping to find safety and affection for Ellen. What he doesn’t expect is to find a betrothed Catherine who feels the same way about him, grown more beautiful and interesting than ever. Fraser’s novella is based on premises that Miss Bates enjoys: the good man, (allegorically called Gabriel) who unselfishly takes on the care of a child not his own, the vulnerable-to-her-feelings woman, the spirit of Christmas and traditional wassailing of a great hall … but there’s that pesky fiancé, Sir Anthony Colville, how to resolve that? There was much to enjoy in Fraser’s novella and, unfortunately, parts that jarred. Continue reading

REVIEW: Culling the TBR One Letter At A Time, “B” Is For Barry

roses2In the spirit of Disclosure! that has been the subject of an interesting discussion at Something More, Miss Bates confesses to being disposed to like Barry’s Brave In Heart for reasons other than her love of: American-set historical romance, spinster-schoolmarm heroines, military heroes, and Ken Burns’s The Civil War.  Ms Barry is a sympathetic and likeable blog presence to Miss Bates, though they’ve never met in person, nor communicated in any other fashion.  Frankly, Miss Bates was whew-relieved when Brave In Heart, Barry’s Connecticut-Civil-War-set romance captivated her from the opening sentence … and proved to be without any connection to one of Miss Bates’s most abhorred novels, Gone With the Wind.  With only minor bumps along the road to reader-joy, Miss Bates loved Brave In Heart … and, like Oliver Twist, begs for, “Some more, please.” Continue reading for Miss Bates’s thoughts on this wonderful novella

REVIEW: Jeanette Murray’s THE OFFICER AND THE SECRET: What Happens When Nothing Happens?

Miss Bates thought Jeanette Murray’s The Officer and the Secret (#3 in the Semper Fi series) one of the most peculiarly non-plotted romance novels she’s read in a long time. Less-than-stellar romances tend to too much plot to mask weak characterization, lack of atmosphere, and rehashed themes. In the case of Murray’s Officer/Secret, the bare-plot consists of the everyday details of ordinary people ambling along, going to work, spending time with friends, and eating a lot of pizza and ice cream. Until the 80% mark of Miss Bates’s Kindle, the sheer niceness of it all made for one boring romance novel. Yet, in the final few chapters, she kinda found herself rooting for the hero and heroine and enjoying the book. Does that make up for poor Miss Bates being trapped in an episode of Friends for most of the novel?

Here’s as close to a non-synopsis as Miss Bates will ever get. Recently deployed Marine, Capt. Dwayne (awful name) Robertson returns stateside, is reunited with good friends (Madison, Skye, Jeremy, and Tim who, Miss Bates gathered, starred in books #1 & 2), and re-acquaints himself with Veronica Gibson, one of their friends with whom he’d  struck a Skype friendship. Dwayne and Veronica are attracted to each other and start a little dating dance which continues till 80% of the book has elapsed. Um, they hang with friends a lot; they attend Tim and Skye’s “re-commitment” ceremony. They watch movies; they work (she’s a waitress). Um, they do have one date, not sure where they’re going, but Veronica decides she’d rather eat pizza and watch a DVD on Dwayne’s big-screen TV … and here silly Miss Bates thought the romance genre was a female fantasy!

Dwayne is obviously the “officer” in the title; but what of The Big Secret? It’s a tad confusing: is the secret Dwayne’s PTSD? It can’t be because he behaves like a mature adult and immediately tells his best friend and then promptly asks for counseling from the chaplain. Whew! This is great … great that Murray acknowledges the problem and points the way to recovery. One can only hope that all our veterans who suffer thus can experience this kind of resolution. But it doesn’t carry any conflict for the novel. Is the secret Veronica’s? Maybe. She was brought up by indifferent missionary parents, who carted her around the world while they saw to others’ salvation, all the while neglecting her. She never received an education and at 26 has to study for her GED. She is clueless … about pop culture and American slang, but she’s studying and  learning so she can be normal! Because globalization hasn’t ensured that American culture permeates even the most remote of regions. Or, as Veronica says, “Coming from living in the jungles or barely populated areas of third world countries didn’t lend itself to modern American social practice. Nobody from the African Zulu tribe was going to ask her to the prom.” Gah. She reads magazines and watches TV and eats ice cream with her friends, Madison and Skye, while learning about pop cultural icons such as Lady Gaga. When we first meet Veronica, she’s dressed in baggy clothes and can’t bear a man’s touch. Miss Bates thought, oh no, sexual abuse, or assault? an eating disorder? … nope, wrong, just hasn’t studied enough fashion magazines.

In this conflict-less romance, Dwayne and Veronica do eventually get it on, though she never tells him she’s a virgin, whereupon we read one of the most idyllic deflowering scenes ever written. (Really, if Woodiwiss could have made that Heather girl enjoy her “first time,” as much, there wouldn’t have been any flame to singe the flower.) They enjoy physical happy times … also watch sports and eat ice cream and pizza with the guys/gals. The friends are in and out of various apartments, giving advise, delivering pizza, tubs of ice cream, having heart-to-hearts that poor Miss Bates didn’t know who was who. This novel has a serious case of series-itis … and that pun is most definitely intended. And no conflict What So Ever. (Watch out! Possible spoilers ahead!) At most, in the last 20% of the novel, the hero and heroine have qualms about being together, largely due to the Other Woman, the oldest line in the book about the mhphmh breaking, and Veronica’s ignorance about basic human biology. Oh, there’s also a bad burrito … but Miss Bates has already neared spoiler territory. Nuff said.

What did endear this novel to Miss Bates? Well, the hero is a real sweetheart. The heroine is, unfortunately, a bit of a nincompoop, but she does have a sense of humour. They both do. They’re also loveably clumsy: pizza bits fly on cheeks, they trip, sprain ankles; they’re adorably goofy, both of them. They’re really quite strong people, which is what makes their socalled issues such non-issues, which makes for the flat narrative. It’s nice to read about reasonable people making their steady way to an HEA. And, unlike Miss Bates’s previous read, the ethos of this novel is quite amenable to her (except for the crack about the developing world): even though you’re a big brawny guy in uniform, you recognize when you need help and seek it; even though life has thrown you lemon-parents, you pick yourself up by the bootstraps, even when your brain-wattage is on the low side, and make the best of life’s lemonade. You love and support your friends. You don’t let past bitterness, regret, and disappointment poison your present or your future. You take responsibility for your actions. You make amends. You say, “I love you” and mean it. It’s a nice read, but it really really lacks tension. If you like your romance novels angst-ridden, this isn’t where you’re going to find it.

Miss Bates says this is a harmless read and you can while away the time with it in “Tolerable comfort.” Mansfield Park

Jeanette Murray’s The Officer and the Secret is available on July 2nd. It’s published by Sourcebooks. Miss Bates received a generous e-ARC from Sourcebooks via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review.

REVIEW: “Monica McCarty’s THE HUNTER: Or Two Mules for Sister Jenna”

The Hunter is Monica McCarty’s seventh Highland Guards novel and a solid read. McCarty is obviously enamoured of Scottish history; this comes through in the novel, as well as the extensive and interesting afterword. Miss Bates abandoned reading McCarty’s work after gorging on her Campbell trilogy and the first of the series, The Chief. Miss Bates enjoyed this one too, but had no desire to fill in the blanks between The Chief and The Hunter. Why? It has to do with McCarty’s love of Scottish history. After reading The Hunter, she noted McCarty’s strengths, but also pinpointed her weakness: McCarty loves her history more than her romance. Her historical research is interesting and fresh; her romance, on the other hand, is formulaic, effective but written to type. Miss Bates always learns something from McCarty; while she enjoys her hero and heroine and their journey to their HEA, she can’t help feeling that she’s read something similar in previous books. Her formula is a winning one, but it is a formula nevertheless.

What can McCarty consistently deliver? A competently written, well-paced romance novel, with the right balance of history, passion, endearing if one-dimensional characters, nasty villains, and a suspenseful build-up to a halcyon conclusion. A winning formula, yes? In this case, her interest in Scottish history focuses on the role that monastic couriers played in the establishment of King Robert Bruce in 14th century Scotland.

Her heroine, Sister Jenna, is a courier, though she has not actually taken the veil. She is Janet of Mar, a noblewoman disguised as a nun, working for Bruce as an intelligence agent on the English side of the border. Her hero, Ewen Lamont, is a member of Bruce’s elite Highland guard, on a mission to return Janet to her family and Bruce’s court. When Ewen finds himself attracted to the nun, not only does he have a serious case of libidinal frustration, but his Catholic conscience is in shambles! This part of the novel was quite charming and reminded Miss Bates of a beloved film, Two Mules for Sister Sarah, with a sexy, pre-Dirty-Harry Clint Eastwood and an unlikely nun in Shirley MacLaine. Amidst stealth and danger, with Janet’s disguise eventually compromised, these two fall in lust. It is charming, heart-stirring lust and the physical sparks between them are fun to read.

McCarty didn’t leave these two lusting and challenging the English, she wanted internal conflict driving a wedge between them. She gave Ewen some daddy issues, a daddy dissipated and wild. Ewen wants to be responsible, honourable, and dispassionate. He’s got quite a ways to fall as he struggles with conscience, honour, and his loyalty to the king to bring this noblewoman back to her family and king in tact. Ewen wants to do the right thing so much that he hurts Janet in the process. Janet’s block to her HEA, on the other hand, rings false. She loves Ewen, wants Ewen, but will not give up her work, or her independence to a man. Miss Bates has no doubt that intelligent women of the Middle Ages might have questioned their inferior status, might have yearned to be something more than what their societies afforded them. Nevertheless, Janet’s consideration of these issues makes her sound distinctly contemporary and renders McCarty’s novel anachronistic. The lady just simply “doth protest too much” to make her a viable historical figure.  That Ewen comes to recognize Janet’s competence, intelligence, and usefulness, but still wants to protect her is more believable. What isn’t? The Disney-esque, castle turrets and all, ending.  You’re better off not reading the epilogue, but don’t neglect the fascinating afterward.

In the end, Miss Bates enjoyed this novel, though she was nonplussed by the anachronistic heroine. McCarty delivers, and you’ll get exactly what you expect: nicely paced plotting, admirable hero and heroine who grow to love and respect each other. This is a very competent, enjoyable romance novel that’ll blend in with every other one you’ve read by her. McCarty is not interested in breaking any molds, or asking any questions of the genre. Sometimes Miss Bates wishes she’d try her hand at a contemporary, set in Scotland of course, but a novel where she can maybe let her emancipated heroine run freer.

Miss Bates was moderately pleased and renders a verdict of “tolerable comfort.” Mansfield Park

The Hunter was made available to Miss Bates as an e-ARC from Ballantine Books via Netgalley. It will be released on June 25th and available in the usual places and formats.

REVIEW: “Susanna Fraser’s THE SERGEANT’S LADY: Love Across the Class Divide”

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments” is key to appreciating Fraser’s début novel. The Shakespearean sonnet’s opening line, quoted in the novel, points to the external and internal obstacles impeding the hero and heroine’s HEA. First and foremost, Sergeant Will Atkins and Anna Arringtons’s romance is impeded by class: Will is a soldier, an NCO, son of an innkeeper and Anna is a wealthy widowed heiress and niece to an earl.  Their social status is solidly internalized; they are creatures of their time and place. They initially recognize these impediments as impossible to overcome, despite the love they share,  and act accordingly and realistically.

As with every neophyte writer, Fraser is guilty of several bumps along the road to Will and Anna’s HEA; overall, however, this is a lovely little novel. It doesn’t break any romantic narrative moulds, but tells a solid story with likeable, believable characters, develops setting and mood, and stays true to its historical context. It provides some lovely dialogue, builds tension around their attraction, and weaves their growing friendship and affection with well-rendered love scenes.

One bump that Fraser’s novel exhibits is a slow start. It took Miss Bates ten chapters to warm to the story and another three before she felt the love. Fraser’s research into the historical context of the novel is to her credit. She obviously knows and loves her Napoleonic Era and sets Will and Ann in the midst of the British campaign, with Wellington’s army, against the French in 1811-12 Spain. How else to bring these two together? Considering the cross-class nature of their love affair, she has to bring them out of normal circumstances into unusual ones. The out-of-the-norm setting of wartime allows them to meet, if not as equals. Unfortunately, Fraser takes so long to bring us to this point that Miss Bates was tempted to leave the novel half-finished.

The other bump that is evident in Fraser’s novel is the cardboard villains, not only problematic vis-à-vis characterisation, but implicating her plotting. As with most début authors, there is too much plot. When we meet Anna, she is married to a cad who has humiliated her, wrongly accused her of adultery, and made her sexuality a thing of shame. Fraser conveniently does away with him and has Anna deciding to return to England via Lisbon, under Sergeant Atkins’s protection and escort. In the meantime, Fraser introduces a new character, a George Montmorency, whose description hints at later villainy. Unfortunately, his villainy doesn’t make an appearance till the last three chapters of the novel, leaving him dangling without purpose. On their way to Lisbon, Will, Anna, and the wounded convoy they accompany are captured by French troops, whose commander then tries to rape Anna. Will comes to the rescue and they escape from their captors. Their journey back to the British forces turns this slow-moving novel into an excellent road romance.

The strength of this novel clearly begins at chapter thirteen when the enforced intimacy of the journey back to the British Army allows Will and Anna to get to know each other, like each other, laugh together, work together to survive, and fall in love. It also gives them, and the reader, heartfelt love scenes. All the while, Fraser manages to evoke time and place and never relinquish the reality of the class divide that separates them or the danger that surrounds them. The final line of chapter thirteen echoes this beautifully, “And outside of this haven of solitude, the world would not allow Anna Arrington, sister of Viscount Selsley, niece to the Earl of Dunmalcolm and heiress to one hundred thousand pounds, to have anything to do with Will Atkins, sergeant and son of an innkeeper. Tonight was all they could have.” This is quite a feat for a début author and Miss Bates is very glad that she didn’t abandon the novel. She is equally glad that Ms Fraser has another two novels in this series that Miss Bates has yet to enjoy and … though she’s sworn off novellas, a soon-to-be-published historical novella centred around an inter-racial couple.

Another strength to this novel, post-chapter-thirteen, are Will and Anna. Will is, at first, too good to be true, too “knight-in-shining-armor.” These are not terribly original qualities in a hero; of course, a hero is strong and honourable, etc., but what won Miss Bates over is Will’s humility. Humility is a rare, but much more interesting, quality in a hero than the usual alpha-male arrogance; Fraser makes Will humble and manly. Will is in awe of Anna, not of her money or title, but her beauty, strength, and resilience. He can’t believe his luck in capturing her heart, but he knows his place and respects the way of the world from which they hail. Anna too is worthy of our admiration; she is everything that Will sees in her and more, for she also loves unconditionally and fiercely and is first to recognize that she and Will, despite their class differences, belong together. Again, Ms Fraser has some trouble letting go of her characters and the end drags, less so than the start, but the insertion of the third “bad guy” definitely makes the novel’s near-end melodramatic. Will and Ann and the reader endure quite a lengthy separation, but Ms Fraser manages to bring our hero and heroine together in a very original way, even while miles apart! Their HEA, when it finally arrives, is convincing, romantic, and poignant. As with the best romance novels, the characters experience growth and their HEA is the well earned result of it.

Though bumpy in places, Miss Bates came to have affection and respect for this romance novel. Will and Anna are eminently loveable, the history and romance very nicely balanced, the hero and heroine products of their time and place but still individuals, and the happy-ever-after bespeaks of shared love, family, and adventure.

Miss Bates is quite content with her read and endows Ms Fraser and her début with being, “almost pretty.” Northanger Abbey

The Sergeant’s Lady is available digitally at the usual places. It was published by Carina Press in 2010.

REVIEW: “Allie Pleiter’s HOMEFRONT HERO: Casting Off the Old Adam”

Allie Pleiter’s Homefront Hero is a gem. Pleiter wields the strict parameters of the category and inspirational romance like a sonnet in the hands of the Bard. If inspies aren’t your thing, this lovely little book may change your mind. This is one of the best romance novels I’ve read in a sea of uninspired ones!

What does Pleiter accomplish? Because this is an accomplished book. She depicts established and burgeoning faith as something living, breathing, elemental, and essential to a full life.  She does so without preaching, only weaving her characters’ faith effortlessly into the narrative in a believable and moving way. In her hero and heroine, she creates two loveable, sympathetic, and flawed individuals. She makes history come alive with detail and atmosphere without over-riding the plot or the romance. She makes wonderful use of a central, unifying metaphor. Her romance is a fully fleshed romance as well as an allegory of death and resurrection of body and soul. Some of the writing is simply superb. There is banter, delightful dialogue between the two leads and secondary characters with “character,” not just functionality.

The story is set in the midst of America’s involvement in the Great War, at Camp Jackson in S. Carolina.  A wounded, recovering war hero, John Gallows, and a neophyte nurse, Leanne Sample, meet when General Barnes orders him to assist with her project. He has been the driving attraction of an army recruitment campaign; he’s handsome, cavalier, charming, wealthy … and wants only to return to battle. Leanne is also on a mission to convince men and boys to join women in knitting socks for the troops. What better poster boy than John Gallows? John uses his acquiescence as a bargaining chip with General Barnes to return to the front, even though his leg is not, nor ever will be, healed and he is in constant pain. What follows is a wonderful, humorous undermining of an alpha male as he learns to knit at the hands of this beautiful, intelligent, pious, and sharp-tongued young woman who takes a stand against his charm.

What starts as a gentle inspie romance soon grows into a dark night of the soul. John grapples with feelings of self-hatred and worthlessness, declaring himself “an unfinished hero,” even while his feelings for Leanne and her gentle persuasion towards God have him in knots. Once the hero’s and heroine’s feelings are fully engaged, John’s imminent departure, his need to be worthy of his heroic status, brings the first of the dark moments for this couple: separation, possible death. But death comes in another form and John cannot abandon Leanne to it. The Spanish influenza epidemic strikes; John and Leanne are plunged into a dark night of the soul. But it is always darkest before the dawn and this novel concludes with stirring scenes of redemption and rebirth. It also has the best “baby” epilogue I’ve ever read … with nary a baby in sight.

For me, the most appealing aspect of Homefront Hero is Pleiter’s use of the unifying metaphor of knitting. If you’re thinking how prosaic … you’d be wrong. Witness the following lovely little phrases. We are introduced to Leanne as she asks that “God cast her life’s reach far and wide,” playing on the notion of “casting” stitches and nets, as in the Christian reference to fishermen’s nets. She uses an understanding of tension in a knit’s weave to represent the tension that attraction brings between the hero and heroine. It stands as the central metaphor of a communion with God: “God spoke to her thoughts and breaths, in colours and sensations.  All her senses seemed to weave together — sometimes tight and coarse, other times loose and billowy.  When the world was tight and coarse, she would feel God beside her, holding, protecting. When the world was loose and billowy, she would feel Him underneath her like the wind under a seagull.”

Homefront Hero is a story, to quote the hero, of “love and God,” of redemption and hope, of humour and everyday life and heroism.  It is not insipid, naïve, or simplistic, which are the adjectives we can sometimes lay at the feet of inspirational romance.

Miss Bates is very, very pleased and says “You have bewitched me.” (Pride and Prejudice)