REVIEW: Shannon Stacey’s SNOWBOUND WITH THE CEO, Or Cabin Fervor

Snowbound With the CEOMiss Bates is not a fan of the workplace romance, but Stacey’s Snowbound With the CEO is both salvaged and marred by its brevity … and it contained elements that helped Miss Bates overlook the office-romance ick-factor.  The workplace, especially involving the corporate world, is difficult for Miss Bates to imagine as terribly romantic, with its ladders and ambitions and competition, though she’s aware that many a relationship has had its beginnings over the water-cooler, “statistics prove.”  But the corporate world is also the place where women have to work very very hard to earn their place, where they are subject to harassment and discrimination.  All of that to say it’s difficult to laud a romance narrative that has its setting in the boardroom and the bedroom.  Nevertheless, Stacey pens a fairly appealing little narrative because she makes the boardroom the problematic arena and the bedroom the oh-so-right one. The brevity of the novella form, on the other hand, aids in this and takes away from it.  The writerly hand giveth and taketh away. Continue reading for more lauding and caveats

REVIEW: Julia London’s THE BRIDESMAID, or “Fickle Fortune … Thou Wilt Not Keep Him Long”

The BridesmaidAn assumption accompanies a reader cracking open a romance novel: fate brings our hero and heroine together; caprice, human and/or otherwise, pulls them apart … will steers them back to each other.  Now Miss Bates is a strictly free-will kind of gal and, even though she hails from an indolently fate-believing culture, she likes to cling to free will as the determinant of human lives.  Certainly the romance novel takes this fate into account to our, its faithful readers, satisfaction: think of all the meet-cutes you’ve read, the tumblings into a room, the snow/rain/ice storms that strand strangers, sojourners, lovers or enemies, the circumstances that bring about marriages-of-convenience, the random doors that open onto the rest of a life (Miss Bates’s favourite being the opening scene of Sarah Morgan’s The Twelve Nights of Christmas) that bring our hero and heroine together.  We swallow it hook-link-and-sinker, this benevolent force ensuring that kindred spirits (think “carrots” and a boy named Gilbert) meet and mate.  However, for an HEA to be complete and satisfactory, the spirits must recognize the kindred in each other and, in an act or acts of transformation and will actively seek and request of the other to join them on life’s journey. 

For a bitty novella, Julia London’s The Bridesmaid serves up questions of fate and will and their role in the romance novel and does so with humour and delightful characters in an engaging plot that echoes what we love about romantic comedy.  In this modest, in length not scope, novella, London writes a romance and reflects on the genre; it’s not pedantic or self-conscious, but sheer fun.  Truth be told, however, there are things that may grate on some readers’ nerves/sensibilities, but Miss Bates is forgiving when a writer tickles both her funny and intellectual bones.           Continue reading for Miss Bates’s further ruminations

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

A Dab of Debate and a Couple of Questions: Ms Knox Responds to Miss Bates

Miss Bates had the privilege and good luck to be able to ask Ms Knox a niggling question about “Making It Last.” It focuses on one of Miss Bates’s favourite lines. The result is that Ms Knox’s answer serves as an interesting counterpoint to Miss Bates’s review and it’s much better written! Read on, if it’s of interest

REVIEW and CONNECTIONS: Ruthie Knox’s MAKING IT LAST, Or An HEA For Don and Betty

cover32533-smallIn Making It Last, Ruthie Knox re-invents one of Miss Bates’s favourite historical romance tropes: the re-united husband and wife. She cleverly separates her lovers/husband-wife not with physical distance, as so often happens in historical romance, but by the emotional distance that comes of a long-standing but floundering marriage. This novella was painful to read in places, but, in the end, it was hopeful and positive. It is all about “making things last” in a marriage: love, attraction, friendship, and desire. It’s about endurance and resilience, even though the hero and heroine are two of the most vulnerable, fragile figures Miss Bates has read in a long time. This is not a romantic narrative to cozy up to; there are uncomfortable feelings here that flow from the characters’ weaknesses to the reader’s, but it is worthy of the reader’s admiration and consideration. Continue reading

IMPRESSIONS/CONNECTIONS: Courtney Milan’s UNLOCKED, Or Katie Keeps Her Golden Boy

UnlockedAlong with the frisson of utter delight that the first commentator (Pamela from Badass Romance) to MBRR gave Miss Bates, in the exchange, she articulated what always pulled at her when she read Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Yes, Jane got her man, a little broken, but she got him; yes, in the end, she was an heiress. Yes, she had her allotted babies, an indication he wasn’t broken where it counted. Jane won her glorious HEA. More than anything, however, in reading Jane, Miss Bates asks: quoting Hamlet (because Shakespeare always says it better) why do we endure “the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes”? Why indeed? Why does Jane endure the nastiness of Rochester’s house-party, the fortune-telling fiasco, Blanche and her mother’s jibes, the horrible aunt and cousins, the evils of Lowood? (To a certain extent because she has to, but let’s not be reductive, Jane never is.) Why do we sob in self-pity when we read these passages and secretly remember every hurt to our self-worth and read on and on even though reading causes us pain? Because at the end of Jane Eyre, at the end of every GREAT romance novel, the heroine (or whoever stands in for the “heroine,” but that’s for another discussion) isn’t just LOVED, SHE IS VINDICATED. Hah, we say, see, she showed them! (The ugly-duckling-fat-girl-awkward-girl-heroine incarnates our vindication fantasy … maybe it’s even sweeter than getting your man, the foiling of the queen bee and bullies?) If you read on, yes, Miss Bates’ll link this inchoate burst to Milan’s novella and more

REVIEW: “Manda Collins’s THE PERKS OF BEING A BEAUTY: Contrite Mean Girl Gets Her Man”

Miss Bates hasn’t recovered from her snark regarding novellas, so don’t expect her to make nice in this review. Even though The Perks of Being a Beauty is better written and better all-around than The Misbehaving Marquess and Hot Under the Collar, Miss Bates is even less enamoured of the novella than in her previous reviews. Collins is in firm control of the form here; she doesn’t let the plot take over from the romance. She maintains a nice balance of character and narrative. Her transgression comes in the form of backstory; because Perks follows from her Ugly Ducklings series and centres on the bully-girl in those books, she provides a lot of filler to help the reader understand the heroine and how she arrived at this point in her life.  After the first few chapters set up the love story, backstory takes over and makes for tedious reading. Therein lies the problem that Miss Bates has discussed before: because these novellas come from an understandable desire to sell an upcoming series or bolster a previous one, authors write them as marketing fodder, which should not diminish what is a pleasant read. So is blanc-mange … and even though Miss Bates is a 19th century spinster who often partakes of blanc-mange, she still prefers a cake-pop.

Amelia Snowe is the mean girl brought low by circumstance and a desire to make amends for her former nastiness. Her mother’s death has left her destitute and debt-ridden, working as a debutante’s companion in the bosom of an up-and-coming nouveau riche family, the Smithsons. Our hero, Quentin Fortescue, younger son of an aristocrat, Amelia’s childhood sweetheart and rejected suitor, reunites with Amelia when he attends the Smithsons’ house-party. Quentin’s addition to the party makes for an odd number of men and Amelia is recruited to “make up the numbers,” much to the chagrin of her haughty and resentful mistress, Mrs. Smithson. When straws are picked for partners in the scavenger hunt, of course Amelia and Quentin are thrown together. Here is another problem that Miss Bates finds with the novella: because length does not allow for a natural development of the romance, coincidence reigns and coincidence does not make  for convincing characterization or interesting plot.  Expediency seems the best an author can do under the circumstances.

One of the initial strengths of this novella, unfortunately not sustained, is the honest and open conversation between the re-united sweethearts. What is less convincing is the habit of authors, like Collins here, to endow their historical characters with modern sensibilities. Though it’s obvious that Quentin is attracted to her and willing to take up where they left off, Amelia resolves that she doesn’t want him. Let’s be realistic: why would a young woman of straitened circumstances, whose future holds nothing more than a journey from one genteel but menial job to another, reject a young, healthy, handsome and rich man? Though some reviewers have disliked Grant’s upcoming A Woman Entangled for the heroine’s mercenary attitude, it makes perfect sense to Miss Bates, all the more so when one considers her own straitened circumstances and spinster status.

Quentin is a lovely hero, forgiving, generous, and even more possessed of a modern sensibility. He is as much hero as psychologist, nursing Amelia through her self-hatred, even while making love to her (which, by the way, they do without thought for reputation or consequences, such as, well, pregnancy). When Quentin learns of the extent of Amelia’s bullying behaviour, he recognizes how she’s been trying to amend for it through reparation to those she wronged and by being a loving and nurturing companion to her ward. He is a dear when he soothes her self-recrimination thus, ” … you had no one to rely upon. And that made you a little … hard.” In lines such as these, you can see where Collins’s strength lies. Does this novella do it justice?

Miss Bates would say, these snippets of goodness are not enough to render a rating of more than “Tolerable comfort.” Mansfield Park (Collins’s novella is available on June 18, 2013)

As for the novella trend, Miss Bates is not pleased and joins Mr. Knightly in saying, “It was badly done, indeed.” Emma (Miss Bates thanks her readers for their forebearance as she spouted snark regarding novellas. She promises not to repeat the activity, unless you enjoyed it, in which case, let her know. She has plenty snark left over.)

This honest review was made possible thanks to a courtesy ARC from St. Martin’s Press via Netgalley.

REVIEW: “Leigh LaValle’s THE MISBEHAVING MARQUESS: Ain’t Misbehaving”

These days, says Miss Bates, romance novellas are like samples at the Costco: a delectation of good things to come, if you’re willing to dish out for a lifetime supply of candied ginger. Thus, Miss Bates has come to feel manipulated by the novella (she’s got one more to review and then she’s swearing off … ), even LaValle’s Marquess, which she enjoyed. Now, Miss Bates does not want to detract from the review at hand, which is a fairly positive one, but the romance novella, such as it is, annoys her. Why can’t publishers stand behind a stand-alone? Why does every romance novel spawn a series? Why does every series have a novella launch, or bridge between two longer books, such as this one?

To start, this marquess hasn’t misbehaved; he has merely pouted … a lot. The marquess, Jamie Forster, has been in a snit for five years because he thought that his wife, Cat, betrayed him mere weeks after their marriage. Even though she’s sworn up and down that she did not, immaturity and hurt pride ensued nevertheless. He nursed his amour-propre in parts unknown until making his appearance in the opening chapter in the marchioness’s sitting-room.

For five years, Cat has been holed up on this country estate, atoning for her non-sin by saving widows and their children from the workhouse. She is renovating cottages in which to house them and building a lace factory to provide work. She’s grown up; she’s changed. Jamie has as well; though he still harbors some hurt, he recognizes that his actions were hasty and immature. He sets out to win his wife back. Cat rightly wavers. Even though she still loves him, can she forgive and trust him? Ah, the marquess eats humble pie to redeem himself. He also bears gifts from his travels that would warm any woman’s heart, or in this case, thaw it.

This story was quite enjoyable. The prose was fairly smooth, a trifle overly impassioned in places, but it read with relative ease. It didn’t break any moulds, or enthral Miss Bates, but it didn’t jar either. Jamie and Cat are likeable and their hurt feelings make sense. LaValle handled the perimeters of the novella’s shorter length well and made the romance front and centre, unlike Miss Bates’s previous read (see her review of Jackie Barbosa’s Hot Under the Collar). She conveyed Cat’s and Jamie’s hurt and love and anger convincingly. She also developped their growing desire to release the hurt and anger in order to forgive each other, love each other, and give their marriage a second-chance. Miss Bates loves a second-chance romance.

In the end, however (Miss Bates picks up the snark again), LaValle’s novella is serviceable. It tells a nice story about two likeable people learning to forgive each other their wrongs and admit their love. By all means, read it; it is a pleasant way to while away an hour. And an hour is about as long as you’ll remember it after you’re done. (LaValle’s novella previously appeared in the anthology Three Weddings And A Funeral.)

Miss Bates would read one of Ms LaValle’s romance novels on the basis of this sampling, but for this diminutive effort, she can only say, “Tolerable comfort.” Mansfield Park

This honest review is the result of an e-novella offered by Heart Bay Publishing via Netgalley.

REVIEW: “Jackie Barbosa’s HOT UNDER THE COLLAR: Casting Stones at the Vicar Hero”

Miss Bates struggled with this novella, alternating liking and disliking it. The prose is polished and smooth; the story, reminiscent of 19th century novels like Trollope’s, except it’s set in 1803 and contains hot love scenes. The fact that the hero of this novella is a vicar makes for interestingly liberal Christian ethics, but the romance is a failure. It pales next to other more interesting aspects. The characters, especially the hero, Walter Langston, the fallen woman, Artemisia Finch, the townspeople of Grange-Over-Sands, their dilemmas, their quarrels are more engaging than the romance, as if Barbosa wanted to write about those things instead of torrid love scenes and a cardboard villain.

The plot of this novella is straightforward. Walter Langston, third son of a viscount, ignominiously injured in the army, unwilling to live on the charity of his older brothers, takes the position of vicar in a small English town. Among his parishioners is the beautiful Artemisia Finch, fallen woman and town outcast. At 16, Artemisia slept with the local aristocratic bad boy, who got her pregnant, sullied her reputation by claiming that she’d slept with other men, and abandoned her. She lost her baby and left for London where she became a highly paid courtesan.  Now, she’s returned to nurse her ill father. Walter takes one look at Artemisia and determines to make her his.

Walter is a very sympathetic character, one who matures and finds purpose as the novella progresses. He recognizes the injustice done to Artemisia and embarks on a campaign to win her, as well as reconcile her with the town. There is a lovely scene where he openly calls on her, setting the example of Christian charity for the townspeople. She is lonely, isolated, and suspicious. He offers friendship. How refreshing, how lovely, how original, thought Miss Bates … above all, our vicar hero is kind. When he turns into alpha-vicar and yanks her to him and kisses her … Miss Bates thought, “Badly done.”

In several excellent scenes, Walter ministers to the townspeople, comforting, reassuring, and counselling them. In the process of doing so, Walter realizes that a sense of purpose had been missing from his life. He found it in this last-resort position of town vicar. As he states at the end, “All his life, Walter wondered what was wrong with him. Why he could find … no pursuit that engaged him … But now he understood.” By going through the motions of being a vicar, already by temperament a kind and charitable person, Walter becomes the very thing he took on so lightly and cavalierly. His journey is believable and engaging. His journey is so believable and engaging that the romance plays second fiddle to it. In the end, the love scenes are not moving, or interesting, or as subversive as Barbosa hoped. The romance doesn’t interest us as much as the individual fates of our hero and heroine. Maybe the shorter form of the novella didn’t give the romance much room to develop convincingly. We are not invested in it, whereas we are invested in Walter’s journey to acceptance and maturity. This is a novella of many interesting ideas, but not much feeling.

Miss Bates is enamoured of the vicar, but not his hotness and says, “Tolerable comfort.” Mansfield Park

This honest review is the result of an e-novella provided by Circe Press via Netgalley.