Though I don’t read as much historical romance as I used to, Mimi Matthews is one histrom author whose books I’d never miss. They’re elegantly written, with finely-drawn characters, and thoughtful themes; her protagonists’ journey to the HEA is sigh-worthingly romantic. Her heroes and heroines are beautifully compatible, showcasing Matthews’s ability to match characterization to plausible future happiness. Her ethos agrees with mine and mine with hers.
Matthews’s novella, “Fair as a Star,” (“A Victorian Romance”) is a wonderful introduction to her work if you’ve yet to read her and thoroughly satisfying an addition if you have and are a fan. Matthews’s Victorian Era is neither idealized, nor villified; if the HEA is an argument for the idyllic over the realistic/pragmatic, this is why I read romance. To follow, verbatim, the blurb-ish summary of “Fair as a Star”:
After a mysterious sojourn in Paris, Beryl Burnham has returned home to the village of Shepton Worthy ready to resume the life she left behind. Betrothed to the wealthy Sir Henry Rivenhall, she has no reason to be unhappy–or so people keep reminding her. But Beryl’s life isn’t as perfect as everyone believes. As village curate, Mark Rivenhall is known for his compassionate understanding. When his older brother’s intended needs a shoulder to lean on, Mark’s more than willing to provide one. There’s no danger of losing his heart. He already lost that to Beryl a long time ago. During an idyllic Victorian summer, friends and family gather in anticipation of Beryl and Sir Henry’s wedding. But in her darkest moment, it’s Mark who comes to Beryl’s aid. Can he help her without revealing his feelings–or betraying his brother? Continue reading
I’ve enjoyed Ruby Lang’s Uptown series and this, the last and third, may be my favourite. The hero and heroine, in keeping with Lang’s urban setting (another kudo for the series), have been around the block. They’re in their forties, were married over fifteen years ago; it ended badly. Now, reunited after a chance meeting, they’re cohabiting thanks to the New Yorker’s ever-present search for a great apartment and reasonable rent. They’re roommates in the Harlem-set building featured in the first two series novellas. Lang has cleverly made setting constant and introduced a new couple into each narrative. By novella three, you’re loving the place, feeling cozy and comfortable with its familiarity, and intrigued by the new couple who becomes its denizen. At 44, Simon Mizrahi has settled into life as a music teacher and choral conductor. He’s achieved professional success. At 42, after travelling the world to learn a unique craft, Lana Kuo returns to NYC as noodle-maker at a Pan-Asian restaurant, hoping, finally, to have a job with health insurance and benefits. She’s content with where she’s brought herself, having learned to ask for what she needs and made her peace with her past: leaving Simon, quitting school. Continue reading
Marguerite Kaye’s The Soldier’s Dark Secret and The Soldier’s Rebel Lover were two of Miss Bates’s favourite 2016 reads. Kaye’s latest historical sheikhs series has been less successful in MissB’s humble opinion, but the Christmas-set novella, “A Governess For Christmas” sees Kaye return to finer form: Regency-set, military hero and heroine of humble means and huge spirit. Set on an English-countryside estate during Christmas season, hero and heroine being the charity-case invites, the Duke and Duchess of Brockmore hold lofty sway over their guests, but throw all the seasonal festivities in grand style. Scottish hero, ex-Major Drummond MacIntosh, at 32, has been dishonourably decommissioned for several years. The reason behind his military ousting, by Wellington no less, is a heart-breaking, visceral tale, of which we learn when he tells ex-governess heroine, Miss Joanna Forsythe. Drummond and Joanna, who shares Drummond’s social disgrace, though not military, in having been dishonourably dismissed by her previous ward’s family, are the Brockmores’ socially-redemptive causes. Joanna’s and Drummond’s presence at the Christmas celebrations is an attempt to redeem their reputations and regain the respect and patronage of their social superiors. As Drummond notes, encompassing the season and what he hopes from it, he has “twelve days to impress his hosts sufficiently to earn their patronage and repair the wound he had inflicted on his reputation.” Little does Drummond know that a beautiful governess will repair a far greater wound, that to his heart.
MissB’s been very busy at the day-job and preparing for Pascha to get a lot of reading done. Though it’s seasonally months-late and incongruous given the Paschal season, she thought she’d try one of her not-yet-reviewed Christmas romances. Maybe get that warm glow of hope going. And … novellas, short reads are good when your time is at a premium. Yet it still took her ages to get through them, despite being possessed of some of Miss B’s favourite tropes. St. John’s “Mistletoe Reunion” has a proto-feminist, no-nonsense alternative medicine doctor-heroine, Dr. Marlys Boyd, and the man she left to be educated and practice her profession, newspaperman and widowed father, Sam Mason. Theirs is a reunited-fiancé(e)s romance with doubt and hurt on the hero’s part and a reassessment of her life-choices on the heroine’s. Shackelford’s “Mistletoe Bride” is a marriage-of-convenience romance, Miss B’s favourite histrom trope. Newly-arrived Austrian immigrant mail-order bride, Beatrix Haas, arrives in Cowboy Creek, Kansas, only to be told that the man she was to marry, Sheriff Quincy Davis, was killed by a local gang. When farrier-hero Colton Werner meets her, it’s because he’s been summoned by the mid-wife to help translate from Beatrix’s German as she labors to give birth. Beatrix travelled to Kansas to give her baby a name and Quincy Davis, it seems, was willing to do so. Now, the realization that she’s near-death and her baby to be born thus and left without a care-giver is devastating. Until Colton offers to marry her, even knowing she might die and he left with an infant’s care. Continue reading
“She was there. At the bar wearing a dress the color of a bruise’s dark heart.”
Miss Bates first read Molly O’Keefe’s short story, “The Heart Of It,” in the Summer Rain romance anthology, which she reviewed in 2014. Miss Bates reread it when it was recently self-published as a standalone and was struck again by its fineness, the delicacy with which O’Keefe recounts her story. “The Heart Of It” isn’t a happy story, but it is a hopeful one. Gabe and Elena’s baggage is contained in the lovely opening line. Their initial encounters are monetary, self-interested, and heartbreaking. They are bruised by life, hurt; like a bruise, visible, when pressed, painful. In O’Keefe’s description of Gabe’s perception of Elena’s skin lies the hope at the story’s heart:
“Her skin was the color of the harvest moon, or the inside of a shell, something white and creamy and perfect.”
Purple bruises give way to an HEA wrested from pain, like the delicate, recovering skin emerging from a fading bruise. Continue reading
Joanna Shupe’s “Tycoon,” the introductory novella to her Gilded-Age-set Knickerbocker Club series, opens with one of the funniest scenes Miss Bates has read in ages! At NYC’s Grand Central Depot, eponymous tycoon, Theodore “Ted” Harper waits for his private Pullman car. In a blink, a feisty young woman accosts him:
Ted Harper never saw it coming. Once minute, he was alone on the platform, and the next he’d acquired a wife.
“There you are, dear husband! Let’s not miss the train,” said a loud, husky feminine voice.
What in the name of Jacob? He tried to extricate his arm from her unexpectedly strong grip while glancing around for a porter. A patrolman. A crowbar … Anyone or anything to dislodge this woman from his side …
“I’m looking forward to meeting your mother,” she said and began propelling him toward the train. “I do hope she can teach me to cook that apple pie you like so much.” Mother? Ted frowned. His mother had been dead for eight years. Crazy, thy name is woman …
Ted’s staid, solitary life, dedicated to growing his New American Bank, will never be the same. Miss Clara Dobson, Hoyt’s department store perfume-seller, takes him in firm hand and makes great use of his stupefaction and bemusement to escape from the dangerous men who are following her. Continue reading
Sarah Mayberry’s Wait For Me is the final novella in the three-part Outback Bachelor Ball series, its events concurrent with those in Joan Kilby’s Win Me and Karina Bliss’s Woo Me. The novellas recount the story of three female friends attending a Bachelor and Spinster Ball in the Australian outback. Ellie, Jen, and Beth bonded at boarding school and remained besties through thick and thin. At 28, they all suffer heartache, coming together at Ellie’s cattle station resolved to heal their wounded hearts by having fun at the local B&S ball. Mayberry’s Wait For Me is Beth Walker’s story. Beth is the one least likely to sow oats at the ball. After three years of marriage, she discovered husband Troy was a cheating cad. Beth had left a music therapist’s career, family and friends, to follow his rising rock-star career to Nashville. Travel, groupies, and a scandal-sheet exclusive about her husband’s betrayal later, a diminished, saddened Beth returns to Australia. Jonah Masters, her husband’s opening act and fellow-Aussie, was the one bright spot from her time in the States. She and Jonah shared a sweet, affectionate friendship. Everything ended when Troy’s infidelities made the front page. Months later, as Beth desultorily sips her drink and awaits the B&S’s opening act, she is surprised to see Jonah Masters and the Rowdy Boys on stage. Jonah’s carried a flaming Beth-torch since he met her and cannot pass up the chance to spend time with her.
Karina Bliss’s Woo Me is one-third of a unique three-part novella series. Its events occur concurrently with those in Joan Kilby’s Win Me and Sarah Mayberry’s Wait For Me. The novellas recount the story of three friends, “sisters-of-the-heart,” attending a traditional Bachelor and Spinster Ball in the Australian outback. Ellie, Jen, and Beth forged friendships in a girls boarding school, seeing each other through farce and tragedy. Now, at 28, they’re in various stages of heartbreak. They congregate at Ellie’s father’s cattle station and resolve to heal their broken, neglected hearts by romping through the bacchanalian shenanigans at the local Bachelor and Spinster Ball. Bliss’s Woo Me is Jen Tremaine’s story. Jen was dumped by her slick ex-boyfriend, the one who re-fell-in-love with his ex-wife. While drowning heart-sorrows with drinkie-poos, Jen accepts Ellie and Beth’s dare to wear Ellie’s “Clarabelle” cow costume at the B&S ball. With Dave’s betrayal fresh, Jen isn’t looking to mend her heart with a fling. She’s going to support Ellie in her unrequited love pursuit of her father’s wrangler, Rick, and heal her newly-divorced, fragile friend, Beth. One sexy, funny, and loving security guard later, Jen re-assesses her “man-ban”.
Joan Kilby’s novella, Win Me, is one-third of an interesting rom-concept. Its events occur concurrently with those in Karina Bliss’s Woo Me and Sarah Mayberry’s Wait For Me. Together, the three novellas respectively recount the story of three friends attending a traditional Bachelor and Spinster Ball in the Australian outback. Ellie, Jen, and Beth forged their friendship in boarding school. They saw each other through farce and tragedy. Now, at 28, they’re in various stages of heartbreak. They congregate at Ellie’s father’s cattle farm and resolve to heal their broken, neglected hearts by romping through the bacchanalian shenanigans at the local Bachelor and Spinster Ball. These traditional “balls” are debauched and rowdy; ratafia is nowhere in sight and participants trip the light fantastic only between the flaps of a sleeping bag.
Miss Bates reveled in reading Maisey Yates’ Shoulda Been A Cowboy like a piglet in her sty. She loved reading and reviewing Laurie R. King’s Dreaming Spies, but it felt good to put on her romance-reading slippers and settle into her favourite genre. She had a moue of disappointment when she noticed that Yates’ story was a novella – not enough, dammit. But she was also glad to see Yates charm her all over again, after a one-too-many sheikh-set duds. Though only a soupçon of romance reading, Shoulda Been A Cowboy delivered a bad-boy-good-girl-unresolved-HS-attraction-prodigal-son-return romance, all beloved romance tropes. Hero Jake Caldwell returns to his home town, Copper Ridge, Oregon, after a fifteen-year absence, to sell his inheritance, a run-down ranch and a few dilapidated buildings. One of those buildings has been given new life by leasee heroine, Cassie Ventimiglia, who runs a coffee shop on the premises, The Grind, and lives in one of the apartments. Jake and Cassie share a history beyond being from the same town. Cassie tutored Jake when they were in high school together, when he was resident heart-throb and bad boy, his Johnny “Wild One” to her “Kathie.” Continue reading