MINI-REVIEW: Regina Scott’s FRONTIER ENGAGEMENT

Frontier_EngagementRegina Scott is a new-to-Miss-B author. Miss B’s relentless pursuit of good inspie fiction is running down like an wound-up toy. Scott’s Frontier Engagement is inspie-light (some heartfelt praying and one lovely forest-set singing of “Amazing Grace”), but not inspired to offer anything new or original in the subgenre. If you’re looking no further than the pleasantness that the subgenre has on offer with none of the offense that it occasionally exhibits, Scott’s 1866-Washington-frontier romance will be for you. Logger James Wallin travels to Seattle to bring a school teacher to Wallin Landing, his family’s fledgling town, and finds Alexandrina Eugenia Fosgrave, newly arrived with the Mercer expedition. Like all good inspie heroines, she’s suspicious and mistrustful, but James’ charm and persistence pay off: “So, like it or not, that schoolmarm had an engagement with the frontier.” James convinces Alexandrina, re-christening her with the diminutive “Rina,” as they set off for Wallin Landing, where Rina hopes to “make something good out of the tatters of her life, where she could make a difference.” Readers soon realize that James’ charm and humour, as well as Rina’s regal bearing, conceal psychic wounds. But Rina is barely established in Wallin Landing when the challenges of teaching leave her tear-eyed and on her way to an easier teaching post. To ensure her safety and, frankly, because he’s sweet on her, James accompanies her in the guise of her fianc√© and the narrative makes an about-face, becoming an inspie road romance. The “road” provides much fodder for both humorous and dangerous incidents, as well as James and Rina opportunity to know each other better and grow closer in love and friendship. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Elizabeth Kingston’s THE KING’S MAN, Or “I am her man. Hers and no other.”

King's_ManDear readers, Miss Bates has been scarce lately: ūüė¶ , the world is too much with her. For the next few weeks, likely months, she offers mini-reviews, much as she’d prefer to wax loquacious. Better a mini-review than none at all, though! Her first such is a historical romance novel, set in late 13th century England and Wales, Elizabeth Kingston’s¬†The King’s Man. It opens as Gwenllian of Ruardean cares for the injured Ranulf Ombrier, Of Morency. He lies feverish, envisioning Gwenllian as ministering angel. Beyond his injuries, Ranulf, frighteningly handsome to the plain, tall, gawky Gwenllian, suffers spiritual torment, pleading with Gwenllian, a hold on her wrist and tormented eyes, to push her dagger into him. What torments him? What has brought this notorious Norman lord, king’s man to Edward I, the king’s assassin, to her family’s castle? Gwenllian, a woman trained in combat, in command of men, is as much her mother’s “woman” as Ranulf is the king’s: stripped of her womanliness by a mother who wants her to be a weapon in preserving Welsh independence against Edward’s hegemony. Lady Eluned, Gwenllian’s mother, bids Gwenllian return Ranulf to King Edward; thus begins a journey bringing Gwenllian and Ranulf, and the push-pull of their antagonism and peculiar attraction, her beast to his beauty, to Edward’s court, landing in the¬†machinating, self-seeking king’s hands. Gwenllian, once promised to Aymer of Morency who was killed by Ranulf, was to be lady of Morency. To this day, her family contests Morency lands. Edward seizes an opportunity of Ranulf and Gwenllian’s presence: he announces their impending marriage, rids himself of a thorny conflict between two powerful families, and seals Ranulf and Gwenllian’s strange symbiosis and rancour and attraction. Continue reading

REVIEW: Elizabeth Hoyt’s DEAREST ROGUE, Of Caged and Lame Birds

Dearest_RogueThe Raven Prince and The Leopard Prince, especially the latter, are two of the best romance novels Miss Bates has read. With what enthusiasm Miss Bates delved into another Hoyt Georgian romance in Dearest Rogue. Eighth in the Maiden Lane series, Dearest Rogue, like the sublime, early Leopard Prince, is a cross-class romance. It opens on Bond Street, where bodyguard James Trevillion, formerly a captain in his majesty’s dragoons, saves his charge, Lady Phoebe Batten, from kidnapping. It’s obvious that James is sweet on Phoebe, but there be complications. Phoebe, sister to the powerful Duke of Wakefield, is blind and needs James’ protection from would-be kidnappers and to ensure her safety as she navigates city and society. (She is an innocent 21 to his jaded 33, so there’s a May/December trope as well.) Phoebe resents James’ close watch over her and her brother’s over-protectiveness. She imagines James dour and old, at least until Artemis, her sister-in-law, tells her he’s young, blue-eyed, and handsome. James, in turn, thinks he’s too old, too poor, too lame (he sustained an injury in the course of his dragoon duties) and too humble-in-origins to be anything but an annoyance to Lady Phoebe. Phoebe and James’ journey to love, friendship, and desire, while fighting kidnappers, Wakefield’s loving, controlling solicitude, and confronting James’ fraught family history, is told with Hoyt’s elegant prose and delightful humour. Continue reading

REVIEW: Jeannie Lin’s A DANCE WITH DANGER, Or An “Irrational Act For Love”

Dance_With_DangerDevoted 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

REVIEW/RESPONSE and Miss Bates Reads A Mystery Novel: Laurie R. King’s DREAMING SPIES and Elliptical Romance

Dreaming_SpiesMiss Bates rarely ventures outside her romance reading enclave, but when she hears the siren call of another genre, it’s a crime novel she goes to. Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, named one of the twentieth century’s 100 best mysteries by IMBA, has been in Miss B’s TBR pile forever. Dreaming Spies, with its detecting team of Sherlock Holmes and wife, Mary Russell, is 13th in the series. (Rats … now Miss B. has to go back to twelve more!) Amidst, like her friend Vassiliki, a super-busy near-non-reading few weeks, Miss B. managed to get through Dreaming Spies in dribs and drabs. But she must read, even when deadlines loom. As a result of this sporadic reading, often conducted in bed nodding over a gently glowing Kindle, Dreaming Spies‘ mystery receded into inchoate Miss B. head-mess (not to fault King, but Miss B’s weak focus and exhaustion) and what emerged into the foreground was Mary Russell’s first-person perspective, a wonderful use of first-person “voice,” and the things “not said” about her marriage to Holmes. Though Miss Bates doesn’t often indulge in blurb quoting, her hazy retention of plot details, in this case, necessitates it. Continue reading

REVIEW: Marin Thomas’s A COWBOY OF HER OWN, Or Girl Gets to Have It All

Cowboy_of_Her_OwnMarin Thomas’s A Cowboy Of Her Own is the final volume in her Cash Brothers series and it shows. There are plenty of brothers, wives, and babies peopling the narrative, though the first half focuses near-exclusively on the hero, baby brother Porter, and heroine, Wendy Chin. Thomas is a new-to-Miss-Bates category author and she was loathe to read this romance: she’s not keen on entering a series at the end and, frankly, she’s tired of cowboys. Cowboys seem to have taken over from the military, or ex-military heroes that were de rigueur in contemporary romance. (Now that our countries are once again embroiled in various Middle East conflicts, they should reappear.) Nevertheless, there were other deviations from the norm in Thomas’s romance that proved most interesting.

Though it’s a frequently-used trope, opposites-attract is one of Miss B.’s favourites for its potential banter-conflict. In Thomas’s hero and heroine, we have a bad-boy/good-girl pairing; with a Chinese-American heroine, the appeal turned out more original than your generic white-middle-class female protagonist. Thomas manages a nice set-up in the first chapter: “He was more interested in partying and working only when he needed money to fill the gas tank or treat a buckle bunny to a night on the town. Wendy was Porter’s polar opposite. She was a go-getter and a staylater at the job” and “As an only child and a daughter, she felt the weight of her parents’ high expectations of her. The constant pressure to climb the proverbial career ladder was overwhelming.” Add a romance-unusual profession for heroine, insurance adjuster, and a hero who transports cattle from rodeo to rodeo; add a mystery plot involving disappearing valuable cattle and you have a nice combination of narrative threads. When Wendy’s boss asks her to ride-along with Porter to unmask the cattle-rustling culprit, we have, in turn, a road romance. Continue reading

REVIEW: Susanna Fraser’s FREEDOM TO LOVE, Freedom To Be Yourself

Freedom_To_LoveMiss Bates appreciates a good author’s note, especially at the end of a historical romance. A sense of where the author is coming from, her interests and motivations, and a tad about research are enlightening. One senses, Susanna Fraser, from her author’s note at the end of her latest, is thoughtful, respectful of historical mood, and details of time and place. She’s considered in her characterization, drawing her characters from historical context. Certainly, Miss Bates greatly enjoyed Fraser’s d√©but, The Sergeant’s Lady, with its unique titled lady and ordinary soldier-hero, a nice reversal of the usual duke-and-commoner-focussed histrom.

In Freedom To Love, Fraser tackled a cross-class and mixed-race identity to her romantic couple and placed them in Louisiana at the end of the War of 1812. Though only spare to his brother’s, Charles, heir-status, Henry Farlow, officer in his majesty’s army, is still aristocratic. Part of General Pakenham’s retreating British forces at the 1815 Battle for New Orleans, wounded and disoriented, Henry wanders onto the Chalmette Plantation where he meets Th√©r√®se Bondurant and her half-sister, Jeannette. Th√©r√®se and Jeannette sneaked onto the plantation, now their father is dead, to find treasure he left behind for them. They must seize the jewels before the rightful plantation owners, their cousins, Bertrand and Jean-Baptiste, discover them. In addition to the treasure, they find and care for the wounded Henry. Thus, the three of them, Th√©r√®se, free woman of mixed race, with a grandmother of African and Choctaw origins, Jeannette, the enslaved sister she wants to free, and a defeated, wounded British officer take refuge on an abandoned plantation hoping to flee before the Bondurant cousins claim the treasure and hand the delirious Henry over to American forces as a POW. Continue reading

REVIEW: Emma Barry’s PARTY LINES, Or The Best Minds of a Generation

Party_LinesEmma Barry writes Miss Bates’ favourite kind of romance novel: rich in context, with characters immersed in a definitive place and time, uniquely themselves, but also emerging out of that place and time. Barry sets her contemporary romances in the arena of contemporary American politics. It was the stew that bubbled forth the first in the Easy Part trilogy,¬†Special Interests, and second,¬†Private Politics. Barry’s third “politically-set” romance, Party Lines, is her most “politically dense” novel yet, but it also offers a gloriously interesting romance. It contains a delicious irony in premise and title. Party politics/lines, especially modern party politics, are constantly in the public eye in this social-media age. How to carve space for intimacy, friendship, love, for “private spaces” in the midst of an election campaign as a key organizing player? That is the story of Democratic campaign manager, Michael Picetti, and Republican assistant to the deputy campaign manager, Lydia Reales. What if the furthering of one’s career hinges on this performance? What if the object of one’s love and desire is on the opposing side? Ideology, conviction, ambition, loyalty come into play and clash with desire, friendship, love, fulfillment, when political affiliations draw the line on what lines can’t be crossed for love. Continue reading

REVIEW: Connie Brockway’s THE SONGBIRD’S SEDUCTION, Or Love Among the Crofts

Songbird's_SeductionMiss Bates will expose her uncouth romance-reading ways and admit she’s not keen on Brockway’s books. She read rav-y reviews about As You Desire, dutifully read it, and it left her cold. She read All Through the Night and liked it better, but wasn’t inspired to read more of the oeuvre. Miss Bates suspects that there was something about Brockway’s voice, a privileging of it, a bringing into the forefront of the narrative that made the reader too conscious of it. When The Songbird’s Seduction came along … well, there was a mitigating factor, the Edwardian setting. Surprise, surprise … Brockway’s latest won her over. The novel was charming and funny, and pulled at the heartstrings. The voice was captivating, droll, affectionate towards its hero and heroine’s youthful foibles. The distancing was still there, but it was gentler. Though it may be deemed a light read, frothy and fun, there were also lovely, poignant moments, moments of pain in the characters, whose effervescent mood and carryings-on, embracing of life, willingness to forgive wrong-doing, were endearing. And did Miss Bates mention the laugh-out-loud moments … Continue reading

REVIEW: Mary Balogh’s THE ESCAPE, Running To, or Running From?

The_Escape

Beautiful cover!

One of Miss Bates’ dearest friends is an artist. She once told Miss B. that visual artists fall into one of two categories: those whose primary focus is colour, or those whose primary focus is line. Maybe we can say the same about romance writers? Those who use line make use of strongly delineated roles for their characters; they rely on convention to build a narrative. Their characters, such as in PNR romance, do not deviate from their prescribed roles: mates are fated; there may be some negotiation and manoeuvring to reach the HEA, but, overall, the reader can see exactly where this is going. Deviations occur in plot rather than characterization. We may also see this in romantic suspense, which is not to say that subversions of the conventions don’t occur. Then, there are colorists, whose primary focus is in the development and transformation, over the course of a simple narrative, of character, in particular the heroine and hero. Mary Balogh is a colorist; her interest lies in characters in transition, caught in a moment when they have to do serious thinking and decision-making about where they’re going. She is also interested in how desire and love can insert themselves into people’s lives at the most inconvenient, unlikely, and often unwelcome moments. Hero and heroine have to work out the impetus towards love/commitment and pulling away from the bonds of engagement, a yearning for connection and longing, at the same time, solitude and independence. These conflicting and conflicted impulses are evident in both her male and female characters. Continue reading