A groggy, caffeine-heavy morning for me after a night reading into the wee hours, thanks to Lauren Willig’s Gothic romance, historical mystery The English Wife. The novel opens in January 1899 in Cold Spring NY, at “Illyria,” Bay and Annabelle Van Duyvil’s country estate. Bay and Annabelle’s hermetic existence has thus far been the bane of Bay’s appearances-are-all mother, Alva. Formidable, humorless Alva is ever flanked by Janie, her mousy, silent daughter and Anne, the mouthy, flamboyant niece she took in. To Alva’s great society-loving heart, Bay and Annabelle are finally celebrating the opening of their magnificent estate by holding a costume ball for New York’s best, brightest, and finest. Until now, Bay and Annabelle’s life has been a mystery. Rumours of eccentricities and infidelities swirl around them, about them … maybe because they keep to themselves and, at least on the surface, appear to live an idyllic existence with twins Sebastian and Viola. Bay and Annabelle don’t seem to give a fig about what the “best people” think, rendering them endlessly fascinating to the society pages and ensuring Alva Van Duyvil’s frustrated, officious meddling. Continue reading
It’s rare that Miss B. reacts to a romance (maybe because her choices tend to the tried and true these days) as she did to Amy Sandas’s The Untouchable Earl. About half way through, she wanted to DNF. But there was a sense of purpose and theme to it that said, “No, no, keep reading.” So, she did. And now that it’s done, she doesn’t quite know what to say about it. At its heart is a sexual healing theme that Miss B. despises, akin to her curled-lip reaction to Lisa Valdez’s Passion, possibly rivaling Old Skool romance to be the worst romance novel ever written. And yet, she also can’t dismiss The Untouchable Earl the way she can Passion. Its premise is the stuff of high eye-rolling melodrama. Melodramatic circumstances conspire to bring Plain-Jane husband-seeking ton debutante Lily Chadwick, kidnapped and drugged, up for auction at Madame Pendragon’s, a brothel. It’s all pretty sordid and awful until the eponymous Earl, a hero with possibly the most ridiculous name in romance, Avenell Harte (with, yes, the obvious pun there) purchases Lily and her intact maidenhead. As far as maidenheads go, hers isn’t half as impressive as Passion’s, but still. It doesn’t look like her maidenhead’s in any danger when we find out that Avenell (she’s strictly forbidden from saying his name and when you consider how lame it is, you can understand the guy’s reluctance) … well, he’s functional and all, but he can’t bear to be touched.
Miss Bates has never NOT had a book on the go; once she finishes one, she has the next lined up. Sometimes, new-book-starting is a desultory affair: tepid, reluctant, maybe even a tad depressing. “Will this satisfy my reading-pleasure-principle?” “I have limited reading time, will this be worth the precious half hour I have nightly?” MissB started reading Maisey Yates’s Take Me, Cowboy in this mode: half-heartedly, maybe even sullenly. But she’d loved so many Yates-romances and went into that good-reading-night anyway. Yates’s Oregon-set Copper Ridge series has had one winner after another, would Take Me, Cowboy exhibit series-exhaustion?
Certainly the romance’s opening had Miss B. scowling: wait a minute, this sounds awfully like the last Yates Miss B. read: Bad News Cowboy, with its plain-Jane, best-bud heroine and looker-womanizer hero who find themselves on friendship’s wrong side, as lovers, prey to powerful desires and frightening feelings.
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.
Now that Miss Bates has read Bliss Bennet’s second romance novel, she can place her in histrom-world with Rose Lerner, Cecilia Grant, and recent discovery Blythe Gifford. They all have the rare, and becoming rarer, ability to create main characters who reflect their times and are in turn uniquely, likably themselves. Their main characters’ constraints are not solely those of personality or circumstance, but political, economic, social, and/or gender strictures. Bennet creates creatures of their time and yet uniquely themselves, approachable and sympathetic to the reader. In her second Pennington romance, Bennet tells the story of Sibilla Pennington, sister to Rebel Without A Rogue‘s Kit Pennington. Like Lerner’s Lydia in True Pretenses, Bennet’s heroine is a young woman grieving her beloved father’s recent loss. Neither Lydia nor Sibilla were daddy’s-girls-spoiled-princesses. Their fathers’ love and acknowledgement allowed them the unique opportunity for women of their time, to lead lives of social and political purpose. Without their paternal lodestones, they’re adrift. Their only recourse is to place their political championing onto their reluctant brothers and make marriages of convenience to further their charitable causes. Continue reading
Elizabeth Hoyt: Miss Bates just can’t quit you. Thus Miss B. found herself reading Hoyt’s, yes, ninth Georgian-set, Maiden-Lane novel, Sweetest Scoundrel. And what a scoundrel Asa Makepeace was, paired with a plain-Jane heroine, his “harpy,” as he called her, Eve Dinwoody, sister to Valentine Napier, Duke of Montgomery (the previous novel‘s villain). As the old duke’s illegitimate daughter, Eve lives an introvert’s ideal life: Val provides her with a lovely home and servants, ample income to indulge her miniature painting hobby, keep her caged dove in fancy seeds, and a bodyguard, a great character in and of himself, Jean-Marie Pépin. Eve is the only person who genuinely loves her nefarious brother. Responsible for Val’s interests in his absence (his shenanigans sent him into “exile” on the continent), she ensures his investment in Asa Makepeace’s grand rebuilding project, the pleasure garden known as Harte’s Folly, is solid. Officious, book-keeping, and dignified Eve meets volatile, foul-mouthed, and crude “Mr. Harte”, Asa, when she confronts him about his cavalier spending of her brother’s money and then goes about controlling Asa’s purse-strings.
“If it had not rained on a certain May morning, Valancy Stirling’s whole life would have been different.”
Thus opens Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Blue Castle, a novel that should be as beloved to Montgomery readers as Anne of Green Gables. Its opening line encompasses what happens to a life at the crossroads of arbitrariness and opportunity, circumstance and freedom. Valancy is a 29-year-old mousy spinster, a Miss Bates without the supportive community or tolerant mother, living in her contemptuous family’s shadow and reminded daily she is her supercilious mother’s cross to bear. Valancy is simultaneously cowed, dismissed, pitied, and exploited. Continue reading
Sometimes a romance writer’s vision lies in wait. Miss Bates started reading Blythe Gifford’s Secrets At Court two years ago and, to her shame, dropped it. The heroine is clubfooted: Miss Bates was uncertain how well the author would handle her disability. The opening left her doubtful. Wendy’s TBR Challenge, however, led her back to neglected titles, buried TBR shames and uncertainties. Miss Bates doesn’t know why a novel whose opening left her cold captured her on second reading (but there’s a lesson there for us all), but it grabbed her like the hero’s firm and gentle touch on the heroine and didn’t let go until she tapped the final glorious page. As poor Guildenstern and Rosencrantz say to the mad Prince, they are neither atop Fortune, nor underfoot, but abide amidst her “private parts.” Thus with our heroine Anne of Stamford, lady-in-waiting, companion, and confidante to Joan, Countess of Kent and Prince Edward’s secret wife, and hero Sir Nicholas Lovayne, emissary and right-hand-man to both Edwards, king and prince. Our protagonists aren’t nameless servants. They attend to the highest in the land and navigate the dangerous waters of royal whims and strategems; as our hero says, ” … the privilege of royalty. To be rewarded for behaviour that would damn any other mortal.”
Devoted romance readers are super-readers: reading, when LIFE permits, several books a week and in possession of TBRs stretching “to the crack of doom”. This makes the rom reader knowledgeable about romance archetypes (more familiarly known as tropes) and, as a result, possessing a vocabulary with which to talk about the genre. Rom readers are pretty awesome in the ways they understand the genre. Moreover, they are knowledgeable about their favourite rom authors’ oeuvre. They compare favourite romance narratives and an author’s books to others she’s written. All of Miss Bates’ rigmarole to say that, when she read Jeannie Lin’s The Jade Temptress, the rom reader’s “hallelujah chorus” played at peak volume. When Miss B. saw Lin’s latest (and celebrated her return to category print), A Dance With Danger, she did the Snoopy happy dance. Reading The Jade Temptress, Miss Bates felt herself in the hands of someone who was doing wonderful things with the genre: interesting, original things, things that would linger and influence, set new bars and revive histrom’s flagging presence. Having read A Dance With Danger, Miss Bates can still say, with conviction, that Lin writes some of the best histrom on offer. Comparing A Dance With Danger to The Jade Temptress, however, leaves the former a tad in the dust. Continue reading
Miss Bates is grateful NOT to be adding Sophia James’s Marriage Made In Money to a DNF post. She was sooo glad to find a romance novel that at least kept her attention to the HEA. James’s alliteratively-titled Marriage Made In Money echoes Mary Balogh’s A Christmas Promise and Rose Lerner’s In For A Penny, favourites of Miss Bates’s. (If you haven’t read them, do it now!) Marriage-of-convenience on the basis of one of the two characters’ need for money, usually the impoverished lord, is often a difficult trope-variation for Miss Bates to stomach. It takes subtle skill to convince a reader that the marriage-deal’s mercenary nature can turn to love and devotion; after all, one of the two protagonists is morally compromised from the get-go. Balogh’s and Lerner’s romances convince. James’s tried. Amethyst Amelia Cameron, 26, and widowed, her former marriage a sham of abuse and trauma, agrees to marry Daniel Wylde, 6th Earl of Montcliffe and Napoleonic war veteran, to make her tradesman-father, gravely ill, happy. Lord Daniel agrees to marry Amethyst to save his crumbling, debt-ridden estates, brought to this low point by his gambling brother, Nigel, whose untimely death also left him a peevish, spendthrift mother and two unmarried sisters. (Just once, Miss Bates would like to read a romance that reverses that convention … but then mercenary women are not half as attractive as men, right?) The novel follows Amethyst and Daniel as they interact, attract each other, misunderstand each other, and stumble their way to an HEA. Continue reading