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
In an opening note to the reader, Stephanie Doyle describes how she’d written Her Secret Service Agent early in her career, unearthed, dusted off, rewrote and gave us the present volume in the Superromance category (which, sadly, will soon be defunct). In retrospect, having spent a few days reading Doyle’s Vivian and Joe, Doyle might as well have left Her Secret Service Agent moldering. This book is a right mess, a wrong mess, and every kind of mess in between. BUT, you’ll rightly ask, “Why did you keep reading?” Goodness knows I never hesitate to DNF, but Her Secret Service Agent reminded me of early Linda Howard, not category Linda Howard, but early romantic suspense Linda Howard and I used to love her. *pouts* Doyle’s Secret Service Agent is Howard with vertiginous character about-faces, a mystery resolution so obvious it sits down and has coffee with you, some dubious suggestions about violence and mental illness, and a hero and heroine who inspire citing Bea Arthur’s immortal words to her golden girl companions, “Which one of you has custody of the brain?”. Why’d I keep reading? The banter was amusing, in places, and the plot pacing kind of clipped along and, of course, the mirror it held up to my Linda-Howard nostalgia.
I hadn’t read a romantic suspense novel in a long time and I wasn’t sure I really wanted to. Calhoun’s Turn Me Loose has a naked-chest-and-dog-tags cover that always turns me off. But, Calhoun: I’d heard a lot of good about her in the Twitterverse and wanted to give a new-to-me author a fighting chance. Turn Me Loose‘s introduction didn’t cover itself with glory and I came a hair’s-breath away from DNF-ing. But the writing was good, darn good, though I disliked the flash-back routine to the hero and heroine’s past. I recognized its necessity because it made it easier for Calhoun to segue into the present, but those, albeit not significant, parts of the novel never won me over. So, what did?
Let’s begin with basic premise and characterization. Seven years before the present scene, undercover cop Ian Hawthorn arrested eighteen-year-old college student and petty drug-dealer, Riva Henneman. In exchange for her freedom, Riva agreed to act as Ian’s “confidential informant”. Ian and Riva spent a lot of time together in stake-out and/or drug busts, with Riva entering dangerous situations as her CI-drug-dealer-self to help Ian and the Lancaster Police Department make arrests. A resentful attraction seethes between them, but ethical lines and power differentials are not crossed. Seven years pass and Ian walks into Riva’s business, a farm-to-table restaurant operation, Oasis, that takes teens and young adults from food-impoverished neighbourhoods and gives them a chance at fair and engaging labour. The food is delicious, Riva is beautiful, and the attraction between them still sizzles and seethes. Continue reading
In 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.
Miss Bates was conflicted reading Duran’s latest, A Lady’s Code Of Misconduct, her responses a roller-coaster of dips and climbs of disappointment or enthusiasm. Misconduct contains Duran’s signature themes: trust, conscience, identity, wealth, class, ambition, power, and how they mesh, shift, and change as two people who start out one way make their way to their better selves because they discover they love the other.
To start, Duran’s narrative takes a convoluted route, opening with a compelling scene and then flashback to bring us the sequence of events leading to it. A man in his prime, a Victorian MP, Crispin Burke, lies dying of a head wound in his parents’ London house. Charlotte, his sister, brings a young woman to his death-bed, a woman who is familiar, yet he’s ignorant of their relationship. Jane Burke, née Mason, announces she is his wife.
Duran then takes us three months prior: filling in Crispin and Jane’s unholy alliance, bred of coercion, manipulation, and expediency. Duran’s plot starts and remains tangled. Crispin and Jane have been long-acquainted: Crispin, a frequent visitor to Jane’s uncle’s, her guardian’s, estate. Allied by ambition, Crispin and Uncle Philip shared a politics of personal gain. They’re not friends, nor loyal, content to use each other for political gain. Duran sets up the villainy: by pointing to how people, without love, see the other as an object, used for personal advancement. Continue reading
MissB. returned to a beloved series with Jodi Thomas’s Wild Horse Springs. Crossroads, Texas’s denizens’ stories continue. Thomas’s series has steadily produced one excellent ensemble-romance after another and MissB. is always happy to return. Wild Horse Springs is a particularly strong addition, if only because the town’s long-lonely sheriff finally gets his HEA. The novel focuses on three couples and a compelling RS plot. Sheriff Dan Brigman falls for newly-arrived country singer, Brandi Malone; our PTSD-ed Texas Ranger hero, Cody Winslow falls (literally! you’ll see) for park ranger Tess Adams; and, we finally have a reunion between high-powered lawyer, former-Cross-Roads cowboy Lucas Reyes and Sheriff Brigman’s daughter, Lauren. The romances unfold in conjunction with some pretty nasty doings. Former waif now grown and happily ensconced in family love and support, Thatcher Jones, finds and loses a little girl – silent, obviously physically abused, and in much need of rescuing. Sheriff Brigman is on the case, as are various Cross-Road-ites and the novel concludes, other than with HEAs for our couples, with an exciting rescue operation. Continue reading
Miss Bates has followed the fortunes of Karen White’s heroine, Melanie Middleton, her on-again, off-again fraught relationship with writer Jack Trenholm, and her ghostly encounters, malevolent and benign, through four books. Though written in first-person narration and with a maddeningly slow-moving romance, MissB enjoyed every one, especially when they culminated in pleasing romantic conclusions. How could she pass up an opportunity to learn of Jack and Mellie’s further adventures? And how not to revisit beautiful Charleston and the vintage homes that feature in each mystery? Be warned, readers, if you haven’t read the first four books, MissB’s review of #5, The Guests On South Battery, contains spoilers. It’s inevitable when each book, while resolving the ghostly mystery at its heart, only moves Mellie and Jack’s relationship one smidgen forward. But there’s epilogue-satisfaction to The Guests On South Battery. When it opens, wife and husband, Mellie and Jack, their ten-month-old twins, JJ and Sarah, and Nola, Jack’s daughter from an earlier marriage, and now Melanie’s step-daughter, are living a good life. Continue reading
Without a doubt, Elizabeth Hoyt’s Duke Of Sin was one of the best romances Miss Bates ever read. It was natural, therefore, that she greatly look forward to Duke Of Pleasure, Hoyt’s 11th Maiden Lane novel. She had a glimpse of its hero, Hugh Fitzroy, Duke of Kyle, as probity to Valentine Napier’s debauchery in Duke Of Sin. Therein and as Duke Of Pleasure opens, Hugh Fitzroy has been pursuing the Lords of Chaos, a group of immoral, aristocratics who use and abuse children and women. With Valentine’s semi-taming by his house-keeper-heroine, Bridget Crumb, Hugh finds himself relying on Valentine’s Constaninopolean correspondence to help him identify and eventually destroy the Lords. Late one night, he is beset and hurt by a hired group of thugs near the notorious St. Giles area of London. The night-bound Ghost of St. Giles rescues him, the boy who doubles as the information-gathering daylight guttersnipe, Alf. When Alf, at the end of their encounter, boldly kisses Hugh, he realizes that the guttersnipe “from the dung head that was St. Giles” is a guttersnipette! Hugh brings Alf to his ducal abode to help him pursue the Lords. What Alf finds in Hugh is an emotionally closed off widower with two troubled young sons , still mourning the mere months-old loss of their mother and Hugh’s estranged wife, Katherine. At 21, Alf herself feels a certain restlessness with her life, wondering what it would be like to live as a woman, have children, and how to react to the strange heart-and-body-stirrings Hugh elicits in her. Continue reading
Miss Bates positively reviewed the first volume of Alissa Johnson’s Thief-Takers series, A Talent For Trickery. However, it was glimpses of the hero and heroine of the present volume, A Gift For Guile, that she anticipated. Guile‘s premise remains the same: three Victorian PIs’ lives are interwoven with the thief-turned-police-informant Will Walker’s family. Walker was killed when he and the three PIs rescued a kidnapped duchess and retrieved her jewels. To Walker’s family, however, two daughters and a son, his death was blessing and curse. Walker manipulated and used them, especially the girls, and yet, for all intents and purposes, with a mother who abandoned them, he WAS their family. A Gift For Guile is the story of the daughter who, Miss Bates suspects, suffered the most damage from Will Walker’s machinations and dishonesty, Esther Bales-Walker. Will used Esther to thieve and trick. When the present novel opens, Esther, known to police and therefore in danger of being identified and caught, is in a London train station, awaiting a meeting with a mysterious young man who claims to have information about her family. The young man has revelations about Esther’s parentage and Esther is compelled, despite the ever-present danger of discovery, to find out what they are. Until, into the station and her life, again walks private investigator (and nemesis), Sir Samuel Brass and said mysterious young man runs away. Samuel and Esther embark on a quest to find him and the truth behind Esther, her mother, father Will Walker, and her origins.
For her final 2016 review, Miss Bates writes about a romance novel that held her in thrall though the night and into the morning, Kerrigan Byrne’s The Hunter, second in Byrne’s Victorian Rebels series. New to Miss Bates, Byrne’s Hunter reminded her of the Monica McCarty Highlander romances that were some of the first she ever read and loved. Byrne’s romance is violent; her protagonists, larger-than-life; and her writing, unabashedly melodramatic and yet elegant. At times, Miss Bates thought this feels “Old-Skoolish” but the heroine’s intelligence and sang-froid and hero’s humility and respect for her make it anti-old-skool. What Miss Bates can affirm is that she loved it. To establish sympathy for a hero who is an assassin hired to kill the heroine in the novel’s first scene, Byrne portrays Christopher Argent’s Newgate-Prison childhood. She paints a scene so horrific for his 11-year-old self that our sympathy is maintained even when, without that introduction, we’d have found his actions unacceptable. Christopher is not as nuanced and interesting as Hoyt’s Duke Of Sin, but Byrne’s romance builds our sympathy for him as Hoyt did for Val Napier: by using the pathos of a difficult, abused childhood … and then sustaining it by showing our out-of-type hero with animals, or children.