REVIEW: Elizabeth Kingston’s DESIRE LINES

Desire_LinesThough I appreciate a medieval-set romance, I’m aware of its challenges. It is difficult for a romance author to capture the strangeness of the medieval world and still make the romance familiar. Thus far, only two romance authors I’ve read achieve this successfully (mind you, I haven’t read much medieval romance, these are the ones who work for me): Blythe Gifford (Secrets At Court is my favourite) and Elizabeth Kingston. But, like Kingston’s mentor’s books, Laura Kinsale’s, it took me a long time to warm to Desire Lines.
To look to the novel’s opening, “It began in beauty and in blood.” A beautiful, knife-laden young woman, Nan, rescues a Welshman, originally sent to the English King Edward I as obeisance from the young Welshman’s father, Welsh royalty.
(England’s 13th-century conquest of Wales is the historical context of Kingston’s novel.) Gruffydd ab Iorwerth has been knight, prisoner, and captive. He’s lived in the luxury of the English court, then hid for years in a monastery, made friends and enemies, tamed and hunted with his beloved falcons (his marketable skill, important to English lords) and been chained, starved, and beaten.

Continue reading

REVIEW: Alyssa Cole’s AN UNCONDITIONAL FREEDOM

An_Unconditional_FreedomI requested an ARC of Alyssa Cole’s An Unconditional Freedom for the most superficial of reasons: I couldn’t resist the hunk on the cover. I’m a sucker for an open-necked shirt, soulful brown eyes, and the man is holding a scroll and lantern … can it get any better? As for the contents, I was open to them, but didn’t go in with any great expectations. What I found was, finally, FINALLY, someone who can put the history back in historical romance. You can’t historically “wallpaper” a history so unjust and ugly: how Cole managed to make me hold my breath with excitement, stop my heart with fear for her characters, and root for a slow-burn romance is testament to her mad writing skills.

At the end of the novel, a seasoned revolutionary in the war against slavery advising the heroine on when to hold’em and when to show’em in this righteous war says: ” ‘First thing you learn about being a Daughter — sometimes you gotta be subtle, and sometimes you gotta burn it all down.’ ” As a Daughter of Romance, Cole sure knows how to be subtle and how to burn it all down, navigating American Civil War history with sureness and skill, steering her characters’ inner worlds with insight and sensitivity and though there are moments when she burns it all down with action, she brings the ship to moor with a light touch of love, commitment, hope, and joy. Her narrative is serious, historically fascinating, and in places, even horrific, but it is never sombre, dark, or hopeless. Its movement is ever towards the light of possibility, even though the journey darkens and the way wavers. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Jenny Holiday’s THREE LITTLE WORDS

Three_Little_WordsHonestly, folks, I’m scared to take a reading-breath, I’ve had SUCH a run of great books since New Year’s and Holiday’s Three Little Words gets on that list too. Not that I’m complaining, but as an introvert and pessimist, I do wonder: when will the reading ball drop?

So, Holiday’s #3 of Bridesmaids Behaving Badly: I wasn’t super-keen going in because, while I enjoyed #2, it didn’t rock my world. I liked it well enough and I especially liked Holiday’s smooth, easy-as-pie prose. There were also intriguing little moments with Gia Gallo, one of the quarto of girlfriends that make up Holiday’s series and this is Gia’s story and the intriguing Cajun chef in whose restaurant heroine Wendy and hero Noah dine in It Takes Two. Gia is gorgeous, a model, and a mess when it comes to food. She’s got a problem with it. In Three Little Words, we learn that, at days-away from 30, her body isn’t doing the skinny-model thing it used to and Gia’s having trouble coming to terms. Groomed from girlhood to compete in the pageant circuit, Gia doesn’t know what else she can be, what else she can do. She puts her existential crisis on hiatus at the novel’s start, however, because she‘s on her way to deliver her friend’s, Wendy’s, wedding dress to her Pink Palace Florida wedding. With a fitting scheduled, Gia has to get there ASAP. Continue reading

REVIEW: Sherri Shackelford’s NO SAFE PLACE

no_safe_placeI first discovered Sherri Shackelford’s romances in my much-missed, much-loved Love Inspired Historical line, where I discovered many favourites, Lacey Williams, Karen Kirst, Allie Pleiter, among others. I loved Shackelford’s inspirational-light historical romances and A Family For the Holidays most of all (read it! it’s wonderful!). I was surprised to see Shackelford move to a category different from the historical, but trusted her to surprise and delight me, with the same talent for weaving interesting variations out of tired old tropes. Some of that was immediately obvious in the details of No Safe Place‘s premise. To start, the heroine, Beth Greenwood, is a forensic accountant. Yup, she’s the lady who susses out the money-bad and suss it she does, except it lands her in terrible danger. Beth is working at Quetech Industries, uncovering money laundering. The Friday before a holiday week-end sees Beth directing an email to the FBI about the fraud. It’s set to land in the FBI inbox come Tuesday. It doesn’t take long for Beth’s subsequent get-away plan to fall under the violent tendencies of goons sent to wipe her out. In comes – *Clark Kent* – aka Homeland Security agent, Corbin Ross – as Beth notes, “Her heart did a little zigzag in her chest. She liked the handsome, Clark Kent appeal.” Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Susan Cliff’s WITNESS ON THE RUN

Witness_On_the_RunI’d been looking forward to the next Susan Cliff romantic suspense thanks to enjoying her previous one, Navy SEAL Rescue. The locales were fascinating; characters, complex; and the politics, respectful of time and place. I expected and found no less in Witness On the Run. (And who can resist that marvelous cover? Which, BTW, reflects the characters exactly as they should be, a rarity in romance, sadly.) Witness opened with the same acute danger and desperate circumstances as Rescue, with Alaskan cold and ice in place of Afghani heat and dust; a grief-stricken widower and First Nations spousal abuse survivor heroine in place of a disillusioned SEAL and determined Assyrian-Christian heroine. In both cases, the heroines have reasons to run and the heroes are entangled in their brave flights from danger and evil. Cliff renders the settings with sensitivity to their politics and captures the climate and conditions with realistic, compelling detail. 
Continue reading

Mini-Review: Susan Cliff’s NAVY SEAL RESCUE

Navy_SEAL_RescueA couple of nights ago, I had an unfortunate encounter with an espresso. The espresso was delicious; its consumption, way too close to bed-time. Oh, happy sleepless night, however, I had a great encounter with a romance novel. A heck of a book hangover the next day, but delicious in being able to read Susan Cliff’s Navy SEAL Rescue in its entirety. I cut my romance-reading teeth on romantic suspense and this year I’ve had the privilege of reading two great practitioners: Anne Calhoun and now, Cliff. Like Calhoun, the suspense was tense and interesting; the background didn’t pander to chest-thumping American patriotism; the main characters shared a hot, tender relationship; as individuals, they were neither idealized, nor caricatured. Hero and heroine managed to be flawed and yet sympathetic. Cliff’s novel opens when the heroine, Layah Anwar Al-Farah, rescues Da-esh (Islamic Front) captured SEAL, Petty Officer William Hudson. While saving the American SEAL from beatings, starvation, and eventual death is an act of mercy, Layah, in fact, has other plans for him. She will ensure that he heal and regain strength in order to help her and a group of refugees cross the Zagros Mountains into American-allied Turkey, and eventually, at least for Layah and her orphaned nephew, Ashur, into Armenia and her parents’ safe arms. Well, the best laid plans of mice, men, and beautiful Assyrian doctors often go astray … Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Theresa Romain’s PASSION FAVORS THE BOLD

Passion_Favors_the_BoldIn 1817 London, 20-year-old heroine Georgette Frost, “accustomed to flights of imagination” leaves the family business, Frost’s Bookshop, to seek her fortune, in pursuit of reward money for locating 50 000 Royal Mint stolen gold sovereigns. Hero Sir Hugo Starling, 32, Georgette-described “hawkish of feature, and stuffy of temperament … [r]epresentative of everything chill and sterile about the life of the mind: study, solitude, and sternness,” discovers boy-clad Georgette on her way to adventure and fortune. As a self-styled stodgy rescuer of females and taker-carers of everyone, doctor and younger son of a duke, Hugo cannot allow Georgette to proceed on her foolish errand without protection. He resolves to return her to his friend and her brother, Benedict, and she resolves to foil him. Theresa Romain’s witty pen is immediately evident in Passion Favors the Bold. Among histrom writers, Romain is gently humorous and deeply compassionate towards her characters and never more so than in her second Royal Rewards romance.
Continue reading

REVIEW: Juliana Gray’s A MOST EXTRAORDINARY PURSUIT

A_Most-Extraordinary_PursuitThere’s a certain kind of novel Miss Bates adores and it appears Juliana Gray has written one in A Most Extraordinary Pursuit. Maybe it’s the summer Miss Bates spent in Greece reading Elizabeth Peters. Maybe it’s the heroines: feral spinsters, independent, prickly, and devoted to their work. A hero who may or may not be “heroic,” a combination 007, Indiana Jones, and Lord Peter Wimsey; he’s ambiguous, as are the heroine’s feelings for him. Nevertheless, hero and heroine must work together to solve a mystery, a mystery set in a locale east of their western European English setting, a place hot and difficult to navigate linguistically and culturally, where the narrative isn’t easy to read, Egypt, India, or Greece. Not since Deanna Raybourn’s first Veronica Speedwell mystery has Miss Bates found and enjoyed a novel of this ilk, not until Gray’s Pursuit.

Our heroine and narrator, Miss Emmeline Rose Truelove, has faithfully served the Duke of Olympia and his Duchess, Penelope, for six years. Emmeline and her employers’ relationship is a close and protective one. Sadly, Emmeline’s beloved Duke died while trout-fishing and his now-Dowager Duchess entrusts her with finding the missing heir, grand-nephew Mr. Maximilian Haywood, off studying Knossian ruins in Crete. Miss Truelove seems to have, at least initially, two companions on her voyage aboard the Duke’s yacht “Isolde” and throughout her journey-pursuit of Mr. Haywood: the charming “reprobate,” Freddie, Marquess of Silverton and Queen Victoria’s finger-wagging, admonishing ghost! Continue reading

TBR Challenge Review: Blythe Gifford’s SECRETS AT COURT

Secrets_At_CourtSometimes 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.”
Continue reading

REVIEW: Marguerite Kaye’s THE SOLDIER’S REBEL LOVER, “I could not love thee, dear, so much … “

Soldier's_Rebel_LoverThe Soldier’s Rebel Lover is second in Marguerite Kaye’s post-Peninsular War “Comrades In Arms” series and, like the first, The Soldier’s Dark Secret, is as much about honour, loyalty, patriotism, and disillusionment as romantic love. Kaye’s historical veracity (Miss Bates holds it above the pragmatic notion of accuracy, library research and cue cards provide that) thematic richness, and exceptional prose make for histrom reading as fine as any a rom reader is likely to encounter. Kaye makes the characters’ feelings of disillusionment and questioning that come with the historical owl’s dusky flight come alive. Miss Bates elevates Kaye to her histrom favourites: Cecilia Grant, Rose Lerner, and Meredith Duran. She loved the first in Kaye’s series, but thinks the second even finer. At Wellington’s behest, Jack Trestain, Dark Secret‘s hero, appeals to his friend Major Finlay Urquhart to re-enter Spain, in disguise, and rescue/extract El Fantasma, the still-active Spanish partisan leader who helped defeat Napoleon’s army. Why? Because should El Fantasma be captured by the present repressive Spanish régime, he may reveal actions damaging to Wellington and England. Finlay, like Jack, is restless and purposeless now war is over. Finlay’s loyalty to his friend, and Jack’s to his country, as well as Finlay’s “unsettledness”, convince him to take the mission. Soon thereafter, Finlay enters Spain disguised as a wine merchant.   Continue reading