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
As a life-long bookworm, Miss Bates has fallen in love with many a writer. Sometimes, the relationship is long-lasting (hello, Charlotte Brontë); sometimes, not (good-bye, D. H. Lawrence). But the experience has always been love at first sight: it’s rare that an author woos her over several books. Reading the first sentence of Mary Stewart’s Madam, Will You Talk? was like Romeo recognizing Juliet across the ballroom. “The whole affair began so very quietly”: Stewart’s novel and Miss B.’s tumble into amore was as lovely and definitive as reading “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” A turn of phrase pulling the reader into the writer’s world, a declarative sentence mysterious, question-inducing: What is this “affair”? How was it “quietly” begun? What came next? If a walk wasn’t possible: why not? what happened instead? What other possibilities were explored? Reading further in Madam, Will You Talk?, Miss Bates discovered more similarities to her beloved Jane Eyre: a heroine moral and fearless, standing on principle, defending the vulnerable, showing compassion, and answering to the unknown with firm purpose and stalwart spirit. Moreover, in the midst of danger and a world of corruption and crime, our heroine finds love in confrontation with a man who is hero and possible villain. Our heroine’s moral stance and fortitude set the world aright for herself and her hero, who emerges worthy of her. There were bumps on Miss B’s Mary Stewart ride, discomfiting jolts encountered on rough country roads by the Bentleys and Mercedes her heroines and heroes drive, but oh what a ride, what views and vistas. Stewart’s novel did not have Brontë’s scope or brilliance, but as Stewart claimed, her stories “love and imitate the beautiful and the good,” marvelously so, says Miss Bates. Continue reading
Miss Bates embarked on her reading of Ruthie Knox’s “two-book bundle” of a previously serialized novel with trepidation. Though there was much she liked about hero Roman Díaz and heroine Ashley Bowman’s story, because there is much she’s always liked about Knox’s narratives, her fears, which lay in the words “two-book” and “serialized,” were realized. Don’t misunderstand, since Knox’s début, Ride With Me, her stories have consistently been worth reading and thinking about. It is no different for Roman Holiday: the same focus on characterization, considered psychology, snappy dialogue, and good, good writing overall. Moreover, what Knox has been trying to accomplish with the Camelot series and now its offshoot, Roman Holiday, is most interesting. It is, when done well, something that the romance genre excels at: the creation of a roman-fleuve, a novel “stream, or cycle,” literally translated “river,” that harkens to the 19th century and, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica definition, is “a series of novels, each one complete in itself, that deals with one central character, an era of national life, or successive generations of a family.” The romance series never sounded so good! 😉 In Roman Holiday, Knox serialized a novel, as well as creating one more volume in her Camelot world, albeit a further afield one. She linked it to a country, a history of both race relations and the American thorn, Cuba, a community of friends and family, a quest-journey, and a coming-of-age narrative. Biting off more than she can chew? Definitely, but she had the scope and temerity to attempt and more power to her: the level of her success, however, is up to the individual reader. Be warned that here Miss Bates writes only a loose response to Roman Holiday; if you’re looking for a full-fledged summary and review … sorry. The length of the novel served as anti-dote to the length of the review, by Miss Bates’ standards anyway. Continue reading, if you’re so inclined
Hamlet: “My excellent good friends! How dost thou?” …
… Guildenstern: ” … On Fortune’s cap we are not the very button.”
Hamlet: “Nor the soles of her shoes?”
Rosencrantz: “Neither, my lord.”
Hamlet: “Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favours?”
This exemplifies how Miss Bates considers most of the romance novels she reads, neither the “very button,” nor the “soles” of goodness, but somewhere about the middle and somewhere about the middle of Miss Bates’ favours is where most lie. This may be said about Louise Allen’s Unlacing Lady Thea, the first half of which Miss Bates slogged through, annoyed with much of it. Nevertheless, competent, smooth prose kept her reading. The second half proved much better: with atmosphere, thanks to lovely descriptions of France and Venice, and a hero and heroine who grew on her. The result is a romance that started out “meh” and ended up fairly good, a lot like our hero and heroine’s journey from solid friends to glorious lovers, from gently green and misty England to the magnificence of canals, gondolas, and the Piazza San Marco. Continue reading
Miss Bates knew Deanna Raybourn in her incarnation as the creator of the Lady Julia Grey mystery series, one Miss Bates read and enjoyed. But mystery novels, in comparison to romance novels, always make Miss B. antsy. Truth be told, she was more fascinated by the Lady Julia/Nicholas Brisbane courtship and coupling than she ever was by the whodunits. She can’t ever recall the dominant mystery thread that is the core of any of the Lady Julia novels. What she does remember, with reader pleasure/pain, are the antagonistic, oblique attraction and temperaments of the leads, the curiosity to know more and more of their intimate encounters and emotional vulnerabilities. Raybourn is so so good at withholding from the reader. This attracted and repelled Miss Bates, had her anticipate and yet avoid the latest release. In her latest novel, City Of Jasmine, it appears that Raybourn loosened those maddening elements and allowed her hero and heroine to eke out a little more of themselves and their relationship to the reader. In this sense, and coupled with Raybourn’s lovely writing and the strong, amiable voice of her heroine-narrator, City Of Jasmine was a better, more satisfying read for Miss Bates. It was also a tighter narrative than the Julia Grey mysteries: it didn’t get as bogged down in details and developped mystery elements with greater and more engaging alacrity. She would venture to suggest that if you like your mysteries with their cross-hairs on the relationship rather than the body, you’re going to relish this latest from Raybourn. It captured Miss Bates … though she still experienced some frustration with it.
An assumption accompanies a reader cracking open a romance novel: fate brings our hero and heroine together; caprice, human and/or otherwise, pulls them apart … will steers them back to each other. Now Miss Bates is a strictly free-will kind of gal and, even though she hails from an indolently fate-believing culture, she likes to cling to free will as the determinant of human lives. Certainly the romance novel takes this fate into account to our, its faithful readers, satisfaction: think of all the meet-cutes you’ve read, the tumblings into a room, the snow/rain/ice storms that strand strangers, sojourners, lovers or enemies, the circumstances that bring about marriages-of-convenience, the random doors that open onto the rest of a life (Miss Bates’s favourite being the opening scene of Sarah Morgan’s The Twelve Nights of Christmas) that bring our hero and heroine together. We swallow it hook-link-and-sinker, this benevolent force ensuring that kindred spirits (think “carrots” and a boy named Gilbert) meet and mate. However, for an HEA to be complete and satisfactory, the spirits must recognize the kindred in each other and, in an act or acts of transformation and will actively seek and request of the other to join them on life’s journey.
For a bitty novella, Julia London’s The Bridesmaid serves up questions of fate and will and their role in the romance novel and does so with humour and delightful characters in an engaging plot that echoes what we love about romantic comedy. In this modest, in length not scope, novella, London writes a romance and reflects on the genre; it’s not pedantic or self-conscious, but sheer fun. Truth be told, however, there are things that may grate on some readers’ nerves/sensibilities, but Miss Bates is forgiving when a writer tickles both her funny and intellectual bones. Continue reading for Miss Bates’s further ruminations
Until she read Sometimes A Rogue, Miss Bates’s only Putney novel was The Bargain, a revised version of the 1989 Would-Be Widow. It had a great premise, great first third or so … then, it all went to hell in a hand-basket. Sometimes A Rogue has its “problems,” i.e., the unique position of being peculiar and soporific. Much of it was … yes, boring. It comprises three, consecutive, not-well-executed narratives: with the same hero and heroine in strange mutations of their personalities over three contortions of the plot in one of the flattest-toned romance novels Miss Bates has ever read. Whew. More often than not, Sometimes A Rogue felt like Putney was assiduously following an outline, sketching in every scene: novel by fill-in-the-blanks, paint-by-number. Miss Bates had the same question at the end of Putney’s latest as she’d had at the end of one of her earliest: what happened here? Why did everything go so wrong in a book that had a modicum of potential? Read on; Miss Bates tries for droll
Miss Bates loves American Western-set romances. She cut her teeth on Cheryl St. John and Lorraine Heath and hasn’t looked back since. If there’s a cowboy romance to be had, she be reading it. Bittner’s Paradise Valley is only a shadow of the heart-wrenching and well-written romances of St. John, Heath and the more recent Kaki Warner, and it was a near-bust for Miss Bates. Her spinster’s heart hardly beat for this old-fashioned Western romance. Miss Bates knew there was a lot wrong here, but struggled to articulate what. Yet, the pithy chapters and clipping-along plot kept her reading. Sometimes, she felt that she was clopping along on an old nag in a John Wayne film; sometimes, she thought she was caught in an episode of Deadwood. Those two contradictory views of the “Old West” pretty much sum up Paradise Valley. Bittner wrote the Wayne version, and maybe that’s what turned Miss Bates off.
Our hero and heroine are Sage Lightfoot and Maggie Tucker. (Getting used to a hero, a rough outlaw cowboy type, named Sage was challenging!) In 1886 Wyoming, Sage and Maggie meet on Sage’s land, the Paradise Valley of the title, over her husband’s grave. James and Maggie had been attacked by outlaws who robbed them, killed James, and raped Maggie. Sage had been riding for these very outlaws, who murdered his best hand and raped the hand’s wife. Sage returns to the ranch with Maggie, where she convinces him to bring her along when he seeks revenge against the bad guys. For the most part, though Miss Bates loved the idea of Paradise Valley as an idyllic place of plenty where innocence is restored, the novel really only took place “on the road.” This is a revenge road romance. As Maggie and Sage travel together to avenge the death of her husband, her brutalization, and the loss of Sage’s hand and money, they fall in love.
Conflict in this novel is two-fold: internal and external. The external conflict is obviously that between Maggie/Sage and the nasties. Internal conflict has to do with the Other Woman and the Big Secret, Sage’s former wife, Joanna, and Maggie’s “carrying” of a child bred of rape. Sage’s been hurt and, even though it doesn’t take him long to realize he loves Maggie, he can’t trust her. Maggie too loves Sage, but keeps the pregnancy from him, fearing his judgement of her and timorous about his mistrust of women. Keeping the Big Secret ensures that she deceives him. But, Maggie is “feisty,” she’ll take his love as long as she can get it … then, be willing to lose him to the Big Secret, rather than lose him on the trail to the bad guys.
Miss Bates had a hard time warming to the hero and heroine. Bittner’s aim in creating her novel’s characters was to capture something raw, harsh, and vulnerable about the people who’d settled this land at this time: does she succeed? She wants her characters to reflect the harshness and beauty of the landscape: does she succeed? Miss Bates would say “no.” She found the characters unsympathetic, unlikeable, and unlikely. A case in point is our first meeting of Maggie, digging her husband’s grave, having just hours ago survived a rape. She’s matter-of-fact and feisty, no trauma, no fear … just forges on ahead to revenge. Sage too is hurt, by his past, ex-wife, status of being half-white, half-Native. He derides “Indians;” Bittner creates a Native secondary character, a baddy named Cutter, whose stereotyping horrified Miss Bates. Sage keeps saying he loves Maggie, but behaves coldly and abandons her in several places when she’s obviously scared and uncertain, even sending her off to the murdered hand’s abandoned cabin to spend the night when they finally return to Paradise Valley. What’s he doing? Why just having dinner and having it out with the ex. He redeems himself finally, but does Maggie the Ninny deserve it? Miss Bates isn’t so sure. Moreover, Sage behaves with such brutal violence that Miss Bates was distressed, waving her sprigged hankie as she read. A successful romance novel pulls the reader closer to the characters; in this case, Miss Bates felt alienated from them.
Miss Bates’s troubles didn’t end with the H/h. Most problematic for her was the very ethos of the novel: the desire for revenge, taking the law into their own hands, the vigilante justice that Sage and Maggie pursue. Miss Bates had a lot of trouble with these ideas and the gratuitous violence that comes with them. Bittner tries to make a case for this by including passages such as, “It’s a strange sort of character you’ll find in country like this. There’s the good, the bad, and sometimes they actually work together to survive.” Miss Bates guesses this would be the idea that there are nuances of character here, but when you examine the actions of the badies and compare them to the hero and heroine, they don’t look all that different. The hero and heroine have no redemptive moments, which would have redeemed the narrative, where say, they realize that life and love are more important than revenge and go home to Paradise Valley and marry and breed many babies. Just on a practical level, Miss Bates wanted to shake them and say, “You’ve found each other, just let it go … why put yourselves at risk of being killed when you’ve got a chance for a good life?!” And boy, that violence visits our hero and heroine too: they are shot with arrows and bullets, attacked by a bear, etc. Bittner was trying to portray what passed as justice in that time and place and that may be accurate and true, but to sanction it is problematic for Miss Bates and will be, she might think, for readers.
This encapsulates Miss Bates’s criticisms of the novel, but she has two more niggling points that troubled her. One is Bittner’s propensity for the declarative sentence, especially at the end of chapters. For example, when Sage’s socalled good nature forces him to bring Maggie back to the ranch to heal from her ordeal, Bittner writes, “He cursed the awkward situation he’d got himself into.” Something we’d already figured out from the context of the chapter. And the love scenes, which are thankfully few and quickly over, are quite purple-prosy with a significant ick factor involved in phrases such as, Maggie’s “gasp” of ecstasy “with the splendor of his manhood.” Gah.
What can Miss Bates say in favour of this novel? It is a novel that at least tries to recapture the sheer sweep of Old Skool romance; Miss Bates just wishes it had left the ethos behind. It is well-paced; it does clip along and the chapters are nice and short. This helped Miss Bates at least finish the book and she wasn’t bored, just flabbergasted.
Miss Bates really really really wanted to like Bittner’s novel; in the end, she couldn’t and has to say, “Rubs and disappointments everywhere.” Mansfield Park
This review is made possible by a generous e-ARC from Sourcebooks Casablanca via Netgalley. Paradise Valley is available as of July 2nd from the usual places in the usual formats.
The Hunter is Monica McCarty’s seventh Highland Guards novel and a solid read. McCarty is obviously enamoured of Scottish history; this comes through in the novel, as well as the extensive and interesting afterword. Miss Bates abandoned reading McCarty’s work after gorging on her Campbell trilogy and the first of the series, The Chief. Miss Bates enjoyed this one too, but had no desire to fill in the blanks between The Chief and The Hunter. Why? It has to do with McCarty’s love of Scottish history. After reading The Hunter, she noted McCarty’s strengths, but also pinpointed her weakness: McCarty loves her history more than her romance. Her historical research is interesting and fresh; her romance, on the other hand, is formulaic, effective but written to type. Miss Bates always learns something from McCarty; while she enjoys her hero and heroine and their journey to their HEA, she can’t help feeling that she’s read something similar in previous books. Her formula is a winning one, but it is a formula nevertheless.
What can McCarty consistently deliver? A competently written, well-paced romance novel, with the right balance of history, passion, endearing if one-dimensional characters, nasty villains, and a suspenseful build-up to a halcyon conclusion. A winning formula, yes? In this case, her interest in Scottish history focuses on the role that monastic couriers played in the establishment of King Robert Bruce in 14th century Scotland.
Her heroine, Sister Jenna, is a courier, though she has not actually taken the veil. She is Janet of Mar, a noblewoman disguised as a nun, working for Bruce as an intelligence agent on the English side of the border. Her hero, Ewen Lamont, is a member of Bruce’s elite Highland guard, on a mission to return Janet to her family and Bruce’s court. When Ewen finds himself attracted to the nun, not only does he have a serious case of libidinal frustration, but his Catholic conscience is in shambles! This part of the novel was quite charming and reminded Miss Bates of a beloved film, Two Mules for Sister Sarah, with a sexy, pre-Dirty-Harry Clint Eastwood and an unlikely nun in Shirley MacLaine. Amidst stealth and danger, with Janet’s disguise eventually compromised, these two fall in lust. It is charming, heart-stirring lust and the physical sparks between them are fun to read.
McCarty didn’t leave these two lusting and challenging the English, she wanted internal conflict driving a wedge between them. She gave Ewen some daddy issues, a daddy dissipated and wild. Ewen wants to be responsible, honourable, and dispassionate. He’s got quite a ways to fall as he struggles with conscience, honour, and his loyalty to the king to bring this noblewoman back to her family and king in tact. Ewen wants to do the right thing so much that he hurts Janet in the process. Janet’s block to her HEA, on the other hand, rings false. She loves Ewen, wants Ewen, but will not give up her work, or her independence to a man. Miss Bates has no doubt that intelligent women of the Middle Ages might have questioned their inferior status, might have yearned to be something more than what their societies afforded them. Nevertheless, Janet’s consideration of these issues makes her sound distinctly contemporary and renders McCarty’s novel anachronistic. The lady just simply “doth protest too much” to make her a viable historical figure. That Ewen comes to recognize Janet’s competence, intelligence, and usefulness, but still wants to protect her is more believable. What isn’t? The Disney-esque, castle turrets and all, ending. You’re better off not reading the epilogue, but don’t neglect the fascinating afterward.
In the end, Miss Bates enjoyed this novel, though she was nonplussed by the anachronistic heroine. McCarty delivers, and you’ll get exactly what you expect: nicely paced plotting, admirable hero and heroine who grow to love and respect each other. This is a very competent, enjoyable romance novel that’ll blend in with every other one you’ve read by her. McCarty is not interested in breaking any molds, or asking any questions of the genre. Sometimes Miss Bates wishes she’d try her hand at a contemporary, set in Scotland of course, but a novel where she can maybe let her emancipated heroine run freer.
Miss Bates was moderately pleased and renders a verdict of “tolerable comfort.” Mansfield Park
The Hunter was made available to Miss Bates as an e-ARC from Ballantine Books via Netgalley. It will be released on June 25th and available in the usual places and formats.
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments” is key to appreciating Fraser’s début novel. The Shakespearean sonnet’s opening line, quoted in the novel, points to the external and internal obstacles impeding the hero and heroine’s HEA. First and foremost, Sergeant Will Atkins and Anna Arringtons’s romance is impeded by class: Will is a soldier, an NCO, son of an innkeeper and Anna is a wealthy widowed heiress and niece to an earl. Their social status is solidly internalized; they are creatures of their time and place. They initially recognize these impediments as impossible to overcome, despite the love they share, and act accordingly and realistically.
As with every neophyte writer, Fraser is guilty of several bumps along the road to Will and Anna’s HEA; overall, however, this is a lovely little novel. It doesn’t break any romantic narrative moulds, but tells a solid story with likeable, believable characters, develops setting and mood, and stays true to its historical context. It provides some lovely dialogue, builds tension around their attraction, and weaves their growing friendship and affection with well-rendered love scenes.
One bump that Fraser’s novel exhibits is a slow start. It took Miss Bates ten chapters to warm to the story and another three before she felt the love. Fraser’s research into the historical context of the novel is to her credit. She obviously knows and loves her Napoleonic Era and sets Will and Ann in the midst of the British campaign, with Wellington’s army, against the French in 1811-12 Spain. How else to bring these two together? Considering the cross-class nature of their love affair, she has to bring them out of normal circumstances into unusual ones. The out-of-the-norm setting of wartime allows them to meet, if not as equals. Unfortunately, Fraser takes so long to bring us to this point that Miss Bates was tempted to leave the novel half-finished.
The other bump that is evident in Fraser’s novel is the cardboard villains, not only problematic vis-à-vis characterisation, but implicating her plotting. As with most début authors, there is too much plot. When we meet Anna, she is married to a cad who has humiliated her, wrongly accused her of adultery, and made her sexuality a thing of shame. Fraser conveniently does away with him and has Anna deciding to return to England via Lisbon, under Sergeant Atkins’s protection and escort. In the meantime, Fraser introduces a new character, a George Montmorency, whose description hints at later villainy. Unfortunately, his villainy doesn’t make an appearance till the last three chapters of the novel, leaving him dangling without purpose. On their way to Lisbon, Will, Anna, and the wounded convoy they accompany are captured by French troops, whose commander then tries to rape Anna. Will comes to the rescue and they escape from their captors. Their journey back to the British forces turns this slow-moving novel into an excellent road romance.
The strength of this novel clearly begins at chapter thirteen when the enforced intimacy of the journey back to the British Army allows Will and Anna to get to know each other, like each other, laugh together, work together to survive, and fall in love. It also gives them, and the reader, heartfelt love scenes. All the while, Fraser manages to evoke time and place and never relinquish the reality of the class divide that separates them or the danger that surrounds them. The final line of chapter thirteen echoes this beautifully, “And outside of this haven of solitude, the world would not allow Anna Arrington, sister of Viscount Selsley, niece to the Earl of Dunmalcolm and heiress to one hundred thousand pounds, to have anything to do with Will Atkins, sergeant and son of an innkeeper. Tonight was all they could have.” This is quite a feat for a début author and Miss Bates is very glad that she didn’t abandon the novel. She is equally glad that Ms Fraser has another two novels in this series that Miss Bates has yet to enjoy and … though she’s sworn off novellas, a soon-to-be-published historical novella centred around an inter-racial couple.
Another strength to this novel, post-chapter-thirteen, are Will and Anna. Will is, at first, too good to be true, too “knight-in-shining-armor.” These are not terribly original qualities in a hero; of course, a hero is strong and honourable, etc., but what won Miss Bates over is Will’s humility. Humility is a rare, but much more interesting, quality in a hero than the usual alpha-male arrogance; Fraser makes Will humble and manly. Will is in awe of Anna, not of her money or title, but her beauty, strength, and resilience. He can’t believe his luck in capturing her heart, but he knows his place and respects the way of the world from which they hail. Anna too is worthy of our admiration; she is everything that Will sees in her and more, for she also loves unconditionally and fiercely and is first to recognize that she and Will, despite their class differences, belong together. Again, Ms Fraser has some trouble letting go of her characters and the end drags, less so than the start, but the insertion of the third “bad guy” definitely makes the novel’s near-end melodramatic. Will and Ann and the reader endure quite a lengthy separation, but Ms Fraser manages to bring our hero and heroine together in a very original way, even while miles apart! Their HEA, when it finally arrives, is convincing, romantic, and poignant. As with the best romance novels, the characters experience growth and their HEA is the well earned result of it.
Though bumpy in places, Miss Bates came to have affection and respect for this romance novel. Will and Anna are eminently loveable, the history and romance very nicely balanced, the hero and heroine products of their time and place but still individuals, and the happy-ever-after bespeaks of shared love, family, and adventure.
Miss Bates is quite content with her read and endows Ms Fraser and her début with being, “almost pretty.” Northanger Abbey
The Sergeant’s Lady is available digitally at the usual places. It was published by Carina Press in 2010.