MINI-REVIEW: Jodi Thomas’s RANSOM CANYON

Ransom_CanyonMiss Bates loves pie, apple, cherry, strawberry-rhubarb, but nothing beats humble pie. She happily munches on it after sneering, snarling, and dramatically slapping her forehead with “What was I thinking?” reading Jodi Thomas’s Ransom Canyon – it’s women’s fiction. More fool Miss Bates because Thomas’s novel has as much going for it as it does going on. 

Ransom Canyon is braided with three narrative strands: the romance between dour, tragic Staten Kirkland, rancher, and Quinn O’Grady, lavender farmer, reclusive pianist, and his dead wife’s best friend; the burgeoning feelings between Lucas Reyes, ambitious teen-ager and hand at Staten’s ranch, and Lauren Brigman, dreamy girl and sheriff’s daughter; and, Yancy Grey, ex-con and handyman to the adorable old coots, all former teachers, at the local retirement home. Add the blue-cape-swirling, curvaceous, sharp-tongued Miss Ellie, nurse-in-training, and frequent visitor to the retirement home and Yancy Grey, at 25, newly released from the big house, has himself a serious case of desire. Ransom Canyon is set in Texas ranching country, in the allegorically-named town of Crossroads, not far from Lubbock. Thomas weaves the three story-lines beautifully, offering redemption, renewal, and love to the broken and troubled – and leaving pending romance threads in the stories of the young ones, Yancy and Ellie, Lucas and Lauren. Continue reading

Betty Neels’ FATE IS REMARKABLE: The Permanence of Beautiful Things and Places

Fate_Is_Remarkable_2007Miss Bates is going to make wild and wooly assumptions about Betty Neels. Her 1971 Fate Is Remarkable will be the ground in which Miss Bates will sow outlandish seeds by saying that Neels’ romances can be read as historical romances in disguise, or at least that Neels was NOT interested in telling a romance of her day. This is not unique to Miss B. Liz from Something More said that Neels’ romances are set in a post-WWII England, rather than the 1970s, 80s, and 90s in which Neels wrote. As long as one is willing to suspend one’s disbelief and replace a fast car with a fast curricle, then they may as well be set in the Regency Era as well. This comes through in Neels’ to-some-tedious, detailed descriptions of interiors and architecture. Miss Bates eats them up … along with any references to clothes, food, or gifts, as she’s written about before. Neels often fails in incorporating details from the time and place in which she actually wrote. In Fate Is Remarkable, for example, there are references to awkward cigarette moments, which Sarah, the heroine, dismisses with a titter. Hugo, the hero, smokes a pipe, like a good Victorian gentleman. There are a few telephone conversations, but one knows that Hugo and Sarah would rather correspond. As a matter of fact, more often than not, their day begins with the post. Neels is good on sleek cars, but even those are the kind that last forever, that go from showroom to vintage in a lifetime. Neels’ interiors and her descriptions of furniture and objets d’art are about finding permanence in a changing world. Miss Bates would say that this is her appeal to readers as well. Continue reading

REVIEW: Inez Kelley’s TAKE ME HOME, “Country Roads”

Take Me HomeEvery spring, in Miss Bates’ cold, northern land, people visit the sugar shacks, where they use what-look-like-wooden-tongue-depressors to scoop warm maple syrup from snow.  They take sleigh rides through grey-white woods and sit to a meal of eggs, ham, and baked beans … doused in maple syrup.  Precious memories for Miss Bates from her early school years, even if present comforts don’t mind relinquishing maple syrup goodness to avoid muddy boots, bumpy rides, and artery-hardening fare.

When Miss Bates went to primary school in the early seventies, her teachers wore fringed leather skirts, peasant blouses, and sported long hair.  They played guitar and had students sing along.  One of the songs they sang was John Denver’s “Country Roads.”  Miss Bates didn’t know where West Virginia, the Blue Ridge Mountains, or Shenandoah River were and didn’t care.  She sang her heart out and not terribly well to the accompaniment of teacher’s guitar: “Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong … ”  Her then sophisticated and risqué native city was as far from the Appalachians as bodies can get in North America, but the sentiments of home, nostalgia, and belonging are still with her.

What do Miss Bates’ happy reminiscences of sugar shack outings and Denver’s “Country Roads” have to do with her latest romance read?  Everything.  Because the running of the sap and a mountain mamma have everything to do with Inez Kelley’s latest, Take Me Home, the first in her “Country Roads” series, which Miss Bates really really liked, with caveats, but liked. 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 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

REVIEW: Elizabeth Hoyt’s THE RAVEN PRINCE, Or Writing the New Jane

The Raven PrinceElizabeth Hoyt’s The Raven Prince hasn’t been around long enough to be “classic romance,” but give it another ten years and it will be. Miss Bates is jumping the gun, but she’ll stick by this claim. Hoyt’s been in Miss Bates’s “get-to” pile of romance novels for a long time. Silly spinster should have read them ages ago because, if The Raven Prince is typical of Hoyt’s writing, she missed out. She now says with confidence that the reading of The Raven Prince is “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” This is as wonderful a romance novel as one can get and especially so because it plays with references to Miss Bates’s most beloved romance, Jane Eyre. Continue reading

REVIEW: “Charlotte Lamb’s HOT BLOOD: Passion/Dispassion”

Miss Bates was fascinated by Lamb’s Hot Blood and all that it implied, but she didn’t love it. She couldn’t embrace it as one would a beloved stuffy, a comfort read, a well-worn volume on the keeper shelf. It is a cat, sleek, mysterious, interesting, but definitely not cuddly, or warm. It engaged her and made her think about what defines inspirational romance.

Miss Bates reads, reviews, and enjoys inspirational romance, but has been dissatisfied by its definition and parameters. Inspirational romance is denominationally defined. (The no sex, no alcohol rule is also found in many “sweet” romances. None of these things in the hands of a master writer will detract from the creation of a deeply moving, interesting romantic narrative.) What inspirational romance lacks is plurality.

After reading Hot Blood, Miss Bates would argue two things: first, that inspirational romance and its readers would benefit from an expansion of their delineations; two, romance novels in general, non “inspirational” ones, like Hot Blood, would benefit from being examined through the lens of their religious implications.

Hot Blood was the final volume in Lamb’s “Sins” series and a fascinating concept. Hot Blood, Miss Bates thought in the course of her reading, is inspirational romance, though niche publishers and readers of the genre as described above would not recognize it as such. There is no God talk, and none of its characters practice any religion. Yet, it emerges with a theologically correct position, for want of better words. The key to understanding and appreciating this is evident in Lamb’s characterization; what matters in looking at the novel through this lens is not who these people are, but how do their instinctive selves behave. What do their bodies do as they are overwhelmed by emotions? What makes Lamb’s novel a romance with religious implications is a turning away from the passions, the “hot blood” of the title, to a movement, for the characters, towards “dispassion.” In the romance novel as envisioned by Lamb, this is a movement away from eros and towards agape.

There isn’t much to the plot of this novel; yet, certain unusual elements drew Miss Bates to it. The hero and heroine are in their fifties and they’re sexy as hell. Kit Randall is divorced and a grandmother; her lover, Liam Keble is a widower and grandfather. They’ve been lovers for two years. When the novel opens, they are estranged because Kit wants to marry, but Liam is commitment-shy. There are secondary love interests, Joe Ingram and Cary Burnaby respectively, who exacerbate the main couple’s volatile relationship. Though there is no physical or verbal abuse in this novel, these two seethe with rage, hatred, and jealousy. Note some of the language and imagery Lamb used to describe her characters and build an argument which privileges dispassion over passion:

Kit’s eyes are, “wide, glittering and sharp like shards of broken green glass in sunlight.” (7)

When Kit sees Liam, “She looked at him with love and anger, wanting to smack him hard.” (32)

When Liam confronts Kit about being seen with Joe, “his tone [is] as cutting as a knife going through silk,” and “he bit out like someone snapping cotton between their teeth.” (35) (The grammatical error in that last one grates.)

In just a few pages, note how physical responses represent their extreme emotions: “Are you dating Joe Ingram to stick a knife in me?” and “His voice was angry” and “Face burning, she angrily said,” and “His mouth twisted cynically” and “She bristled, glaring at him” and “she asked in pain” and “His eyes flashed; she felt the violence seething behind his face and tensed” and “her face clenched in misery and anger.” (44 – 47)

As emotions reach feverish intensity, Lamb pens Miss Bates’s favourite little passage describing one of Kit and Liam’s many confrontations, “Across the table their eyes met, like the eyes of deadly enemies with drawn swords between them” (112). These characters are out of control, their passions, or “hot blood,” rule/rules them, so much that their arguments take on a force “as if they had been fighting physically instead of verbally.

One of the ways in which Lamb intensifies the tension between the protagonists is by making Liam’s actions and reactions a mystery to Kit. (Indeed, Miss Bates enjoys this also in Betty Neels’s romances.) The hero is a closed room to the heroine. By staying strictly in the heroine’s consciousness, without accessing the hero’s, the hero holds as much mystery to the reader as he does to the heroine. Note the following passage from Hot Blood: “Yet Liam was still mysterious to her, his responses and emotions as indecipherable as some ancient script scratched on a primitive artefact. You could sometimes make out a line here or there, but the meaning of the whole defeated you. In fact, she was sure that he did not want her to know too much about him” (42). Miss Bates thinks that this is what makes the alpha hero, a hero whose motivations remain mysterious. He remains mysterious, unknowable, other.

As our protagonists boil and seethe and clench their teeth and turn red, even “fuchsia” for poor Kit, as their tempers run rampant and burst out of them uncontrollably, Lamb places her novel squarely in the inspirational camp, establishing an argument for dispassion. Passion puts these characters in a hellish realm. Indeed, the character who speaks for dispassion is none other than Liam’s foil, Joe Ingram, a war photographer who has witnessed what the rule of the passions brings to humanity. He says to Kit, ” ‘I want to believe in things again — in innocence and goodness and kindness. And people. Most of all, I want to like people and believe in them, without getting laughed at for my gullibility. I wanted to get up in the morning without being afraid that before I went to bed again I’d see people being blown apart or tortured or raped’ ” (87). “Hot blood” is outside of the rational, outside of attaining Joe’s “innocence and goodness and kindness.”

Lamb puts sexual passion in that realm too when she writes about Liam and Kit’s reconciliation in their love-making as, “her blood had begun to run like wildfire through her veins” (156). When Liam finally reveals the reason he was reluctant to marry, even though he loved Kit and was eaten by jealousy over her friendship with Joe, it involves “hot blood,” a traumatic experience he lived through with his wife (trying to avoid a spoiler here). “Hot blood” makes a character weak because he/she is not in control of him/herself. Anger, jealousy, lust, these are the passions that beset our protagonists and only dispassion can set them free to love, to be good to each other, to be kind to each other. When Kit and Liam finally come to this loving point, Kit in particular does so as a rational being in full control of her will and heart; her love for Liam and his for her is genuine, freely chosen and given, and will lead to a shared life of loving equals, “it had come at last in a mood of warm contentment, a shared happiness, not in the hot blood of their lovemaking” (188). Agape over eros, dispassion over passion.

This is a provocative and interesting read. In rendering her judgement, Miss Bates must look to Miss Austen’s own propensity for dispassion in creating/critiquing her most pro-passion heroine, Emma, when she described her thus, “A mind lively and at ease.”

(If you’d like to read Hot Blood and Miss Bates recommends that you do, it is available digitally, or used at the usual places. It was published in 1996 by Harlequin. Miss Bates picked it up for pennies at a church bazaar because the hero and heroine on the cover are grey-haired and the coverlet on the bed is kitschy.)