Contemporary romance is a big and diverse animal. Its “infinite variety” inhabits a breadth of verisimilitude, from HP fantasy to the realistic, at times gritty, MC urban wasteland, which, MissB argues, meet and mate in the fantasy realm when the straight-line continuum is arced to a circle. All this to say that along realism’s continuum, where tropes work at one point, may fail on another. Sarah Morgan’s third “From Manhattan With Love” romance, Miracle On 5th Avenue, is an example in comparson to her HP, Playing By the Greek’s Rules (possibly MissB’s favourite HP were it not for that pesky Lynne Graham writing annoyingly good HPs, like The Greek’s Chosen Wife.) The Greek’s Rules contains a naïvely endearing, full-force of positivity heroine and brooding, cynical alpha hero, as does Miracle. What works in one doesn’t in t’other, or maybe imitation isn’t the highest form of flattery when an author imitates herself?
Miss Bates is a Tessa Dare fan. She read the first three Spindle Cove novels and adored them, especially the third, A Week To Be Wicked, with its bespectacled paleontologist-heroine and dissolute rake-hero. Also, it’s a road romance and Miss B. loves a road romance almost as much as she does a closed-cabin one.
Do You Want To Start A Scandal, Spindle Cove #5, doesn’t take place in Spindle Cove, but at the Nottinghamshire estate of Sir Vernon Parkhurst and, as such, is more a closed-estate romance, with a dash of closed-room mystery thrown in. Heroine Charlotte Highwood and hero Piers Brandon, Marquess of Granville, are Sir Vernon’s guests. When the novel opens, neither is in a good place. Charlotte’s marriage-machinating mum, reminiscent of Austen’s Mrs. Bennett, has landed her in the humiliating position of being a gossip-rag’s ridiculed gull, the Prattler‘s. Charlotte is the source of the eponymous “scandal” and the moniker plagues her throughout. Piers, on the other hand, is everything proper, controlled, and aristocratic. His presence at the Parkhurst estate, however, is not in the convention of the languid gentleman enjoying a few weeks in the country. He’s on official crown business, spying on Sir Vernon, who may be asked, by the government, to take a sensitive overseas position. Piers is there to find out if scandal, tryst, blackmail, or any politically-lethal weakness, may put the crown at risk of humiliation. So, Charlotte, prodded by her mother, is on a husband-finding mission while Piers is on a fact-finding one.
Nicole Helm’s True-Blue Cowboy Christmas is the third and final volume of her Montana-set Big Sky Cowboys series. Miss Bates enjoyed the series’s combination of humour, angst, strained family dynamics, and theme of love’s healing, reconciling power. And when it comes wrapped in a Christmas-set romance narrative, all the better! One of the thematic aspects Miss B. enjoyed the most about Helm’s series is her creation of characters at a crossroads. Helm’s MCs come from difficult places, with pasts that hurt and thwart. When we meet them, they’re caught between a crippling past and the glimmer of breaking free of it, with the help of the transformative experience of love. Breaking out of old psychological habits and personal-history constraints is painful, like giving birth, but the potential rewards are great: the promise of living a better, different way is too potent and our protagonists too honest, desirous of it, and good, to forego the opportunity. Continue reading
One of Miss Bates’s favourite romance tropes is the villain’s redemption, the character who serves as the foil and nasty in previous books FINALLY! gets his story, or enters a rom nasty as death and emerges a poignant hero. Miss Bates counts some of her favourite romances among these tropishly-delicious rom-narratives, especially Kleypas’s The Devil In Winter and, oh my goodness such goodness, Georgette Heyer’s first two Alastair trilogy books, These Old Shades and Devil’s Cub. Elizabeth Hoyt’s tenth Maiden Lane novel, Duke Of Sin, has a villain-hero who combines the qualities of Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent; Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon; and, his son, the Marquis of Vidal. Valentine Napier, Duke of Montgomery is “the most wicked man in London … as deadly as a coiled adder.” He’s beautiful, decadent, a blackmailer and murderer and, though exiled, he’s back and ready to restore his rightful place in society by all unsavory means. But into his blackened heart and hollow soul crawls a little avenging angel of a housekeeper, Bridget Crumb.
(With this Miss Bates’s 299th review, she confesses to a slight and temporary change of direction. Miss Bates has taken new professional responsibilities at the day-job and must curtail her reading and blogging activities. The plan is to post a mini-review once-a-week. Gone, for the present, Miss Bates’s deliciously loquacious review-posts. In their place, what Miss Bates hopes will be shorter reviews, still helpful and interesting to her readers.)
Through the Storm is Rula Sinara’s third From Kenya, With Love romance. Miss Bates loved and reviewed the first, The Promise Of Rain. Heroine Tessa is married to Brice Henning and bringing up her nephew, her sister’s son, Nick. Maria and husband Allan were killed in an airplane crash. Brice offers Tessa what she’s craved since a child, stability, safety, security. Growing up with environmentalist-sailing parents, Tessa lived a childhood of fear, always apprehensive her parents would never return from their dangerous missions. With the loss of her sister, Tessa’s fear are re-awakened. When she suspects her husband of taking part in the unethical ivory trade, she must expose him. But first, she must ensure Nick’s safety. Continue reading
Lauren Layne is a new-to-Miss-Bates romance writer. Miss Bates read the third in her New York’s Finest series, Cuff Me, without reading the first two. Miss B. makes two conclusions: one, Layne is a rom-writer she wants to read again; and, two, part of the reason is, though third-in-series, Cuff Me didn’t have that tired-formulaic feel that too many “series” books do. It helped that Cuff Me has one of Miss Bates’s favourite rom-tropes, opposites-attract, especially when the opposites are a grumpy hero and effervescent heroine. Layne’s contemporary romance reminded Miss Bates of Maisey Yates’s Part Time Cowboy, which Miss B. adored. So if you love Yates’s Copper Ridge series, you’re sure to love Cuff Me.
Our curmudgeon-hero is Vincent Moretti, one of the NYPD’s finest homicide detectives, his perfect-solution record testifying to his abilities. His bubbly, tiny, blonde partner is Jill Henley. Together, playing on their bad-cop-good-cop personas, they’ve been getting their man for six years. When the novel opens, Vin is anticipating Jill’s return from Florida, where she’s been taking care of her injured mum. Vin’s restless desire to see Jill again perturbs him. He adorably grunts through a haircut, a further sprucing up at his apartment, and several rides around town trying to find the perfect welcome-home gift. He finally settles on her favourite donut, which he brings in a crumpled paper bag to his family’s celebratory dinner on Jill’s behalf. Vin’s close-mouthed happiness at seeing Jill again is dashed when his brothers and sister Elena, Jill’s BFF, corral him at the door to tell him about Jill’s engagement.
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.
Jo Beverley’s 1991 Emily and the Dark Angel restores your faith in the genre. That was Miss Bates’s thought as she turned the last page with a satisfied reader’s affection-sigh. Miss Bates is glad she read Emily Grantwich and Piers Verderan’s wooing on paper: a traditional format for a traditional Regency, which never loses its freshness, elegance, or emotional power. What brings about that lift, the reader’s spirit-rise, the recognition of “I’m in the presence of one of the genre’s greats”? It’s difficult to pinpoint, as elusive as catching a sunbeam. It’s trope-manipulation, or gentle tinkering; it’s psychological acumen. It’s the bringing-to-life of time and place; it’s secondary characters who breathe. It’s turn of phrase the reader recalls long after the last page is turned. It’s banter and confession and the fulfilled promises of desire and being understood.
Emily and the Dark Angel contains one of Miss Bates’s favourite romance pairings, opposites-attract: Emily is sensible to Ver’s imprudence, countryside respectability to Ver’s citified worldliness, propriety to his flouting of social conventions, innocent to his debauchery, staid to his temperament, plain to his gorgeousness, and Miss Bates’s absolute favourite, her diminutive stature to his gargantuan. When this yin-yang romance combination is handled as cleverly and sensitively as Beverley’s, the HEA is about the couple’s integrating the best of each other in themselves. Core identity is preserved for tension and interest, but tempered to show us how they will live in harmony.
“No, no, Papa. I won’t. You cannot make me.”
Anne Gracie’s 1999 Gallant Waif opens with Julia Davenport’s rejection of hero Jack Carstairs as she pleads with her father to release her from their engagement. Jack returned from the Peninsular War scarred and disabled. Julia could live with his disfigurement and inability to trip the light fantastic, but his poverty is unforgivable. And so, disowned by his father, barred from war’s arena, and spurned by his fiancée, months later Jack still broods and drinks in his neglected estate like a big, handsome male version of Miss Havisham. Until Lady Cahill, his irascible, adorably officious grandmother, befriends Kate Farleigh, her deceased god-daughter’s daughter, and deposits her in his household, ostensibly as his housekeeper. Jack and Kate were wounded by the war. She followed the drum to care for her pastor-father and soldier-brothers until they died and, to her shame, was then captured and became a French officer’s mistress. Jack and Kate share a deep shame for their war experiences and cannot separate what happened to them from what they perceive their failures and shortcomings. Continue reading
Carina’s covers for Barry’s series have been great!
Near the end of Emma Barry’s Private Politics, second title in The Easy Part series, protagonists Liam Nussbaum and Alyse Philips work together on a news story. Liam, owner and editor of a successful political blog, Poindexter, refers to working with Alyse as being “very His Girl Friday.” At that moment, it clicked for Miss Bates. Barry’s second Washington D.C.-set romance novel about the byzantine wheeling and dealing of America’s capital echoes 1930s screwball comedies (which also happen to be Miss B’s film favourites). She was disposed to like Private Politics on this basis alone, but found so much more. While the obvious connection, given the journalistic and political context, is Hawks’ His Girl Friday, Miss Bates found parallels to Capra’s It Happened One Night, with its journalist-hero and rich-girl heroine and themes of professional integrity and disclosure wrapped in a cross-class road romance. While Private Politics contains only a hint of the cross-class element (indeed, Miss Bates loved the cross-religious element to the romance; Liam, middle-class nominal Jew, and Alyse, self-avowed rich-girl, Manhattan-ite WASP), Liam and Alyse journey, though they never hit the road, by navigating the personalities, complexities, and immoral/amoral machinations that people America’s capital.
One of Barry’s many strengths, especially in this series, is writing about the importance of meaningful work to her characters, even while they negotiate a new relationship. Miss Bates is glad to read a romance writer who doesn’t write a workplace romance (not attractive to Miss B.; only Jessica Hart has done it well in Promoted: To Wife and Mother), but still writes about work in a significant way. Moreover, Miss Bates delighted in Barry’s loveable leads and scenes of what Liam and Alyse call “espionage.” She laughed with them, but was moved by their groping awkwardly towards one of the most convincing, most believable HEA-couples she’s read in romance fiction. In a word, she loved Barry’s novel. In this her third, Barry’s hand shows growth and confidence; her pacing is better, her writing coming across as effortless. Thematically, she never relinquishes the romance’s essence: the difficult choice of vulnerability over isolation, of the soft places of the heart over the comforts of pragmatism, and of love over will. Continue reading