REVIEW: Karen Kirst’s RECLAIMING HIS PAST

Reclaiming_His_PastIn 1885 Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Jessica O’Malley discovers “a bruised and battered man,” “his celestial blue eyes” anguished and confused. She half-carries him to the cabin she shares with her mother, Alice. Jessica and Alice care for his wounds, but there is no healing for his mind. What- or whom-ever brought him to this state rendered such a blow to his head that man they call Grant Parker (from a dedicated Bible they found in his pack) cannot remember who he is, where he came from, what he did, or why he was left for dead on their homestead. Karen Kirst’s Reclaiming His Past contains elements that are some of Miss Bates’s favourites: a temperamental heroine, mysterious hero, an idyllic setting, and AMNESIA narrative! Kirst made wonderful use of the trope, so dear to soap-lovers everywhere, to say something about coming to terms with oneself and one’s past. She created a clever contrasting counterpoint between hero and heroine: Grant can’t reclaim his past because it’s a blank; Jessica, in turn, is haunted by hers. Grant and Jessica work together to find answers and lay ghosts to rest to forge a new, beautiful, and hopeful future. Grant struggles to figure out his identity and purpose, while Jessica struggles to put away her cynicism and suspicion. What they share, even when their exchanges are antagonistic, or problematic, is a prayerful stance towards God: whatever their trials, they call on Him for help and understanding.
Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Amara Royce’s ONCE BELOVED

Once_BelovedMs Royce’s Once Beloved opens at London’s 1851 Great Exhibition. Heroine Helena Martin, née Thornton, is overwhelmed by the crowd. Two-years widowed and a recluse, she ventured out for her young sons’ sake. Helena suffers from agoraphobia and panic attacks, her anxieties stemming from the incident that killed her beloved husband. Her unexpected rescuer is Daniel Lanfield, brother to the fiancé she abandoned in Marksby, her native village, to elope with Isaiah Martin. When Daniel recognizes who she is, he expresses disgust and antipathy. But Daniel is too decent to leave Helena in this state. He helps her and, when she receives a summons from her only living Marksby relative, her ailing, possibly dying grandmother, he offers to take her in his cart. Accompanied by Helena’s niece, Vanessa, Daniel and Helena make their way to Marksby  where Helena will confront her youthful actions’ fruits – an economically devastated village and cold, hurtful, insulting reception. Though he still resents her, Daniel becomes Helena’s unlikely ally in this journey of reckoning into the past.
Continue reading

Review: Kat Latham’s THREE NIGHTS BEFORE CHRISTMAS, My True Love Offered Vindication

3_Nights_Before_XmasThree Nights Before Christmas is the second Kat Latham romance Miss Bates read this year. When Miss Bates thoroughly enjoys two romances by the same author, said author enters auto-buy territory. Latham’s work is quirky, interesting; it stands out. It feels special and different, fresh. When you consider Three Nights Before Christmas‘ premise, it’s easy to see why. On Thanksgiving, Lacey Gallagher is released from prison, having completed three of a ten-year sentence. She will serve parole in her Montana hometown, live at home with older brother, Sawyer, and work at the family’s Christmas tree farm. Lacey was convicted of transporting drugs thanks to Dave Dugger, a charming, lying, manipulative ex-boyfriend. The man who arrested and helped put her in prison, nemesis Austin Wilder, letter-of-the-law forest ranger and looker, features in Lacey’s best and worst dreams. But Miss Bates tosses frivolity where she oughtn’t – yet, as serious and painful as it is to witness Lacey’s struggles adjusting to the world outside prison walls, the wit and warmth with which the novel is written and the love with which Austin, Lacey, and everyone around them are rendered, puts a smile on a reader’s face, even during some of the novel’s darkest moments.  Continue reading

TBR Challenge: Carla Kelly’s MISS CHARTLEY’S GUIDED TOUR, Or What Happens When the Itinerary Is Tossed

Miss_Chartley's_Guided_TourMiss Bates shares an ambivalent relationship with Carla Kelly’s historical romance fiction. She enjoys them, doesn’t love them. She reads them from cover to cover, but experiences moments of restlessness, or boredom. When she ends a Kelly romance, she’s glad she read it. They resonate, but reading one is preceded by feelings of obligation and an “it’s-good-for-you” pep talk. Why is that? Because Miss Bates finds an unappealing preciousness to Kelly’s characters. Her characters’ “buck up” attitude to disasters that befall them tend to the farcical. Though historical details are accurate, the ease with which class distinctions are discarded, while ethically appealing, makes Miss B. squirmy with discomfit. Yet Miss Bates loved Kelly’s Miss Chartley’s Guided Tour. She loved it because it calls on the hero and heroine to engage with life, even after horrific events befell them and they “bucked up” to make the best of lives gone wrong. Kelly writes about how a time to weep gives way to happiness … and the means of that happiness are to open the heart and to serve others. The best way that Miss Bates can think of to describe Kelly’s appeal is that her romances exemplify Christ’s notion that to find your life, you must lose it. Miss Bates loved Miss Chartley’s Guided Tour … despite the ragged hole of implausibility in its fabric. Continue reading

REVIEW: Kate Noble’s THE GAME AND THE GOVERNESS, Standing in Someone Else’s Shoes

The_Game_and_the_Governess

Run-of-the-mill cover for a unique romance novel!

Lessons are learned in Kate Noble’s historical romance, The Game and the Governess. One article led Miss B. to reading it: Jessica’s Book Riot recommendation and one made her think about it, Robin Reader’s DA essay on “Romance and the ‘Meaning of Life’.”  Robin Reader’s questions about romance’s reluctance to engage in existential speculation, which centred, in the discussion, on inspirational romance, raised interesting ideas. Miss Bates thinks that romance is even more enjoyable when it implies an ideological basis. And really, is there any way to escape the ideological, even when an author purports that she’s just telling a good romantic story? That, however, is not the job of the author, but the critic, which is why, with Northrop Frye, Miss Bates would agree that criticism can be as “creative” an act as fiction-weaving. Miss B. digresses, as is her wont. Suffice to say for her purpose here that Noble’s romance novel is, like Jane Austen to whom she has been compared (see Jessica’s review), a novel of ideas, interesting, reader-chewable ideas of privilege, class, merit, and personality.

Noble begins with an interesting premise, years before she brings her hero, “Lucky Ned” Granville, Earl of Ashby, and heroine, governess Phoebe Baker, together. Her premise is “fortunes falling, fortunes rising.” When Ned was twelve, living modestly with his mother in Hollyhock, Leicestershire, his uncle, the then earl, sent him to school, grooming him to be the future earl. Ned never saw his mother again. When we meet him, Ned is a careless, carefree, amoral aristocrat; he’s not a charming rake, hiding his kindness and consideration. It’s not his dissipation that is important, but his attitude towards others and self-importance. When Phoebe was seventeen, she, because of her father’s bad investments, lost her place in the world: from soon-to-be débutante to orphaned governess (and unlike Jane Eyre, whom Miss B. couldn’t help but think of, no fortune lurks in the shadows to make her palatable to an aristocratic husband). In the midst of her loss of fortune is a fraudster, Mr. Sharp, who also milked the then young earl, Ned. Phoebe’s rage, at the time, led her to writing two hate-filled letters to the young man who had the power and privilege to put an end to Mr. Sharp and did not, though he too had been defrauded by him. When we meet her five years later, Phoebe has wrested equanimity from her situation; she makes the best of her governess role, loving her charges, the delightful Rose and Henry, daughter and son to Sir Nathan and Lady Widcoate, and reveling in her teaching role. Her misfortune has given her, if not passion, then contentment and occasionally delight. Phoebe remains a model of hard work and positive attitude: a lesson that Nat needs to learn if his life is to have purpose. Continue reading

REVIEW: Julia London’s RETURN TO HOMECOMING RANCH, Or “So Much Crap To Overcome”

Return_To_Homecoming_Ranch

Pretty cover!

Miss Bates selected two Julia London titles as part of her 2013 favourite reads list. She wrote lovingly of London’s first book in the Pine River trilogy, Homecoming Ranch, and an unrelated, but terrific novella, “The Bridesmaid”. She eagerly awaited the sequel to Homecoming Ranch, Return to Homecoming Ranch, despite the uninspiring title. Return features the same alternating narration of first-person Leo Kendrick, the physically-challenged brother of the first book’s hero and voice of wisdom, and third-person omniscience. It is set in the same beautiful Colorado mountains, though descriptions of nature and wildlife, which Miss Bates loved in Homecoming Ranch, were less of a focus. The prose is as smooth and controlled in the second Pine River novel as it was in the first. It offers a hero and heroine who, like Madeline and Luke of the previous volume, are hurt, broken by what life threw their way. In Homecoming Ranch, the reader glimpses Madeline and Luke’s potential, the capacity for shoring their failures and starting anew, their capacity for happiness. Though similar elements are present in Return To Homecoming Ranch, Miss Bates couldn’t warm to it. Pages turned; the story held her attention, but she didn’t embrace it as she had London’s previous effort. Miss Bates’ dissatisfaction comes from feeling a tad cheated in the romance department, and a tad cheated in the believability of the HEA, and she feels a heel for saying so. She’s coming down hard on Return because it is women’s fiction, a designation she abhors and books she avoids. As a critic, she should review a novel on the basis of its parametres, not her expectations and preferences. As a reader, she didn’t enjoy it. She respected it, though. London took on serious issues: a mental breakdown in her Libby and alcoholism in her Sam. She handled them with sensitivity and originality … with caveats. Libby and Sam apart dominate the narrative; Libby and Sam together, though sexy and funny in places, are unconvincing; their love and future, dim. Continue reading

REVIEW: Inez Kelley’s SHOULD’VE BEEN HOME YESTERDAY To Be With You

Miss Bates loves trees and lives in a country with plenty! She writes and reads and ponders in company with the maple tree in her front yard and records time’s passage by its changing leaves. This is one reason she enjoyed Inez Kelley’s “Country Roads” series. Kelley has set her three romances in West Virginia’s forest and the intricacies of a traditional logging industry (something else Kelley’s setting shares with Miss B’s country) making its way in the modern world, walking a fine line between profit and conservation. Moreover, Miss Bates enjoyed the romances: they’re sexy, heroines don’t take gaff from the heroes, and the heroes are manly-men who concede. Of the three, Take Me Home, The Place I Belong, and Should’ve Been Home Yesterday, Take Me Home edges out as her favourite. The first and third in the series were un-put-downable: the prose is smooth; the setting, beautiful; the heroine and hero, lovingly conflicted. Should’ve Been Home Yesterday had the added advantage of being a convincing contemporary marriage-of-convenience narrative, one of Miss Bates’ favourite romance tropes. Furthermore, it was a second-chance-at-love story, a wonderful combination of flashback, forward action, and two people meant to be together if they would only be honest with each other. At least there are reasons in their past that make the close-mouthed agony understandable. Despite the wonderfulness, Should’ve Been Home Yesterday suffered from the same problems, to a lesser degree, that Miss Bates found in The Place I Belong. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Trish Milburn’s THE TEXAN’S COWGIRL BRIDE

Texan's_Cowgirl_BrideMiss Bates is always interested in a romance novel portraying an ill hero, or heroine (though it’s interesting that she has yet to read an ill hero). As Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, said in The Great Gatsby, ” … there was no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well.” This has made for some great romance novels; in both cases, the heroine is ill, or recovering from a life-threatening illness: Donna Alward’s How A Cowboy Stole Her Heart and Karina Bliss’ Here Comes the Groom. Indeed, how a romance writer treats the topic (sorry for the pun) makes for compelling reading, especially the hero and heroine’s navigation of their relationship in mortality’s crosshairs. It’s the only reason Miss Bates made it through the sole J. R. Ward Blackdagger Brotherhood novel she ever read, Lover Eternal. (She quite liked it, but one was enough, thank you.) Trish Milburn’s The Texan’s Cowgirl Bride, a mouthful of a title, held that promise for Miss Bates. She really, really wanted to like the story of Savannah Baron, peach-pie-baker par excellence and store-owner, faced with a life-threatening illness, and soldier-turned-private-investigator, widowed hero, Travis Shepard. Milburn’s romance novel is set up with interesting premises: its problems lie in their execution. 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

REVIEW: Molly O’Keefe’s SEDUCED, Finding “Rainbows in Little, Wrinkled Brown Seeds”

Seduced-by-Molly-OKeefe-300x450

What a beautiful cover!

 Miss Bates’ Canadian perspective of the American ante- and post- bellum periods is set, in most unscholarly fashion, by popular culture. She read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind when she was in grade six. She loathed it then; she loathes it now. (And no, she wouldn’t reread it to gauge her response years later.) In 1976, when Miss B. was a new teen, she, and millions of others, watched the TV miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots, a novel with its own controversies and questions. Nevertheless, at the time, Miss Bates and her family, European immigrants to North America, loved it. In 1990, Miss Bates, again with so many others, was glued to Ken Burns’ The Civil War. Who can resist the images, soulful music, and epistolary eloquence? But, it too has its misrepresentations. She doesn’t purport any expertise on the topic other than what she refers to here and that is no expertise at all, really. Moreover, Miss Bates sees the American civil conflict through the lens of a tsk-tsk-ing outsider, her own country’s conflicts never having seen a battlefield other than the legislative (though Louis Riel, the rebellions, his trial, and execution in 1885 might have something to say about that. It is a time and place worthy of a romance). Not that Canada is immune to racism and conflict, au contraire, but our “quiet revolutions” have been linguistically decentralizing, while our neighbours’ claim to unity has always struck her as more mythic than actual. All of this to say that she, nevertheless, welcomes a romance set in the aftermath of the war, though she’s also leery of it, thanks to GWTW, given this period in American history remains a tender, if scabbed over, wound. She’s uncertain, nay ignorant, how well O’Keefe’s Seduced skirted historical and political landmines. From this outsider’s perspective, however, as a romance, Miss Bates loved it … with a few caveats for some weaknesses … but a highly recommended read nonetheless. Continue reading