Review/Response: Jessica Hart’s JUGGLING BRIEFCASE AND BABY, Or The Crumpling Heart

Juggling_Briefcase_and_BabyAfter finishing Jo Beverley’s sublime Emily and the Dark Angel, Miss Bates was in a reading funk. Much like a fussy baby, “grizzling” (as Hart describes adorable Freya in Juggling Briefcase and Baby) from book to book, unable to settle. Miss Bates read the opening pages to at least 15 e-ARCs; none of them took: the writing was stilted, info-dumps galore, and even romance writers she usually loves were giving her the meh-blues. She tried out a few non-roms; that experiment fell flat as well, too many writers too conscious of the prose and ignorant of the pacing, plot, and characterization. She stood in her spinster’s lair, foot a-tapping, index finger beating a dissatisfied refrain on her chin: nothing stood out from the groaning paper TBR shelves. “What to read? What to read?” … always turn to a title from a favourite author! Hence, Jessica Hart’s Juggling Briefcase and Baby, a one-click buy from years ago when Miss Bates read Wendy’s review. Dear readers, Wendy was right: this is a great great rom. There be reasons. There be one reason above all that makes for great rom. The genre runs with a pretty straight forward narrative: encounter, new or reunited; development with obstacles; HEA. That’s all there is to it; characterization, pretty standard, flawed but basically likeable, on occasion, admirable. What distinguishes the romance genre from others is the emotional wisdom, the deep deep astuteness about the bond of falling in love and making the scary leap to commitment. Hart, alas no longer practicing the romance art, is/was one of its most sensitive practitioners.   
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Review: Tawna Fenske’s LET IT BREATHE

Let_It_BreatheFor a while, it looked like contemporary small-town/rural romance eclipsed historical. Historical is slowly in the ascendant and contemporary looks stale. Or at least those have been Miss Bates’s feelings lately. Then, Tawna Fenske’s Let It Breathe: a perfect combination of humour and pathos, second chances, and sundry laugh-out-loud moments thanks to a hilariously motley crew of secondary characters.

Reese Clark, thirty-four-year-old divorcée, manages her family’s Oregon wine business, Larchwood Vineyards. She has big plans to expand the business by building a new tasting-hall, hosting tours, and getting LEED-certified. In her meagre spare time, she fosters injured wild animals and plays straight-woman to her outrageous grandpa, Albert, aka, “Axl,” her cooingly-in-love parents, her wild-living cousin Larissa, and Eric, vintner ex-husband, and Sheila, his wife. Clay Henderson re-enters their lives. He’s the Dorrington Construction manager and the man Reese has loved since college, Eric’s best friend, and the alcoholic everyone rescued and succoured until one night fifteen years ago when Reese didn’t bail him out. Clay Henderson is four-years sober-and-serious and back to build Reese’s vineyard-dream and make amends.
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Review: Donna Thorland’s THE DUTCH GIRL

Dutch_GirlDonna Thorland’s Renegades Of the American Revolution series, of which The Dutch Girl is fourth, is unique and wonderful. Miss Bates thinks it should become one of the great rom-sagas and certainly deserving of the same status as the dubious Outlander (Miss Bates isn’t a fan). Thorland cleverly interweaves history, adventure, spy thriller, and romance. Thorland’s Renegades are as much fun to read as Willig’s Carnation series (Miss Bates is a HUGE fan).

Thorland’s heroines are intelligent, beautiful, marginalized, caught up in the politics of war and espionage, but always, at core, ethical, admirable, and independent. They may start out naïve and young, but they’re survivors. They learn to navigate turbulent waters of intrigue and political interests without ever losing themselves. At their side, though often on opposite sides of the American/British divide, are heroes, somewhat more knowing, experienced, and equally embedded in the political interests of their day. The heroines, however, tap into the heroes’ romantic, protective core, an inner self the heroes have forgotten, seemingly discarded, or tucked away as years of political and/or military expediency hardened them. The eponymous Dutch Girl is Annatje Hoppe, whose alias is Miss Anna Winters, spinster New York school teacher. Our hero is childhood sweetheart, disgraced and disinherited-landed-rich-boy-no-more highwayman, Gerrit Van Haren.   Continue reading

REVIEW: Michelle Douglas’s A DEAL TO MEND THEIR MARRIAGE

Deal_To_Mend_Their_MarriageMiss Bates loves the reunited husband-and-wife trope. When Douglas offered her an ARC of A Deal to Mend Their Marriage, she accepted (though she dislikes the line’s closed-bedroom-door “love scenes”). Miss B. was pleasantly surprised when Douglas’s romance followed her own missbatesian edict to keep the relationship “kisses only” (not keeping anything from the reader that might be essential to understanding the protagonists’ relationship). What intense, character- and relationship-building kisses they are! Douglas’s title, A Deal to Mend Their Marriage, plays cleverly with the initial state of the hero and heroine’s marriage, “a deal to end their marriage.” Caro Fielding is at the reading of her father’s will. Their relationship was fraught, with Caro failing to fulfill her father’s expectations. She’s achieved a hard-won independence working as an antique dealer, reconciled to being disinherited. Instead, Rolland Fielding leaves Caro a vast fortune and his loving, devoted second wife, Barbara, zilch. Caro and Barbara share a warm relationship. Caro wants to redress her father’s injustice, until she realizes her father thought Barbara was stealing from him. When an expensive antique snuffbox in Caro’s possession on behalf of her employer goes missing, soft-hearted Caro wants to save Barbara from legal repercussions. She turns to her security-and-detecting-agency-owning, estranged husband, Jack Pearce, to help her solve the mystery of the missing snuffbox and save her beloved step-mother.     Continue reading

REVIEW: Candace Calvert’s STEP BY STEP

Step_By_StepCandace Calvert’s contemporary inspirational medical romance Step By Step is second in her Crisis Team series. It is Miss Bates’s first Calvert romance novel and won’t be her last. Whatever liking Miss Bates holds for this title, she acknowledges that the problem with inspirational fiction is its appeal to a niche market. This is problematic when Miss Bates finds an author who merits a wider audience. The dilemma remains, however, because inspie romance, even when it’s as well-written and psychologically nuanced as Calvert’s, contains elements that alienate the general reader.

Calvert’s Step By Step is a second-chance-at-love romance for two widowed protagonists. The wounds are deeper and grieving still fresh for nurse Taylor Cabot: ” … the rings had finally come off, after migrating from her left to her right hand in a painfully slow march through grief – like a turtle navigating broken glass.” Step By Step opens with Taylor and her cousin Aimee watching the San Diego Kidz Kite Festival. A private plane crashes, wreaking havoc and death on festival goers. This disaster scene is one of the “crises” that ER health care workers contend with and are heart-stoppingly described in Calvert’s novel. Taylor rushes to help, abandoning her conversation with Aimee about returning to life and love after grieving her beloved Greg for three years. The transfer of patients to San Diego Hope’s ER reunites Taylor with Seth Donovan, crisis chaplain with California Crisis Care and the man who offered Taylor friendship and compassion when she lost her husband.
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REVIEW: Sarah Morgan’s SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL

Some_Kind_Of_WonderfulMiss Bates doesn’t understand why Sarah Morgan’s North American Puffin Island romance is marketed in a double-rom volume with Susan Mallery’s Ladies’ Man. If there was ever a romance that deserved to stand front and center on a cover, it’s Some Kind Of Wonderful. Which is why Miss Bates features the U.K. edition’s pretty, whimsical cover.

Morgan’s Puffin Island series has already given us two wonderful romances, one of the best HPs Miss Bates and friends have read, Playing By the Greek’s Rules, and First Time In Forever. Continuing the story of three bosom friends, Some Kind Of Wonderful tells Brittany Forrest’s tale, Brittany whose grand-mother bequeathed her Castaway Cottage on Puffin Island, the college besties’ summer hang-out and sanctuary when things go awry. Brittany returns to Puffin Island after breaking her wrist excavating Aegean Bronze Age weaponry in Crete. Dr. Forrest’s troubles go from “single spies to battalias” when her private plane ride to Puffin Island comes in the form of one silent, sexy stunner, ex-husband of ten years, Zachary Flynn – the bad boy who abandoned her ten days after their marriage.
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Review: Janice Kay Johnson’s ONE FROSTY NIGHT, Or High School Sweethearts Reunite

One_Frosty_NightWhose Baby? (2000), Maternal Instinct (2002), With Child (2005), Snowbound (2007) and The Man Behind the Cop (2008): romantic suspense, family-centred, child-parent-focussed, believable problems and dilemmas, and all Janice Kay Johnson category novels Miss Bates read and enjoyed. Johnson goes about the business of producing solid, unassuming romance novels without “strum und drang.” Miss Bates can’t say that the Johnson novels she’s read are huggable-loveable and she’d carry them to a desert isle, except for the contemporary marriage-of-convenience and unusual Whose Baby? Nevertheless, they never fail to leave her thoughtful about the complications life can throw at good, ordinary, fallible people, how to contend with troubles in “battalias,” how to make families out of pretty crappy circumstances, and how to love another person in his/her imperfections. Not a bad feat, even if Miss Bates’ reader heart doesn’t miss a beat reading. Johnson does no less in her latest Harlequin Super-Romance, One Frosty Night. Miss Bates has quibbles, but this is a solid romantic suspense, with more suspense than romance. Continue reading

Wendy Superlibrarian TBR Challenge: Jessica Hart’s UNDER THE BOSS’S MISTLETOE, Taking the Sweet Out of Sweet Romance, Or From Heyer to Hart

Under_Boss's_MistletoeIf Miss Bates as romance reader has a romance writing twin, it’s Jessica Hart. Hart pushes all of Miss B’s romance-loving buttons: her books are a perfect balance of realism and fairy tale, emotional intelligence and ideas. (Miss Bates is indebted to Emily J.H., a Twitter friend, for inspiring this post, and hopes inspiration is with her.) All of this wondrous goodness is in Miss Bates’ latest Hart read, Christmas-inspired of course, the 2009 Harlequin Romance, Under the Boss’s Mistletoe. Miss Bates suspects that Hart’s writing is both intuitive and conscious (as the best writing is), aware of craft and led by muses and the unconscious. In Under the Boss’s Mistletoe, Hart offers a classic romance narrative arc, as defined, always for Miss B., by Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel (social context defined – meeting – barrier – attraction – declaration/realization – point of “ritual death,” what Miss B calls “darkest before dawn” or “dark night of couple-soul” – recognition/overcoming of barrier(s) – betrothal/marriage/baby-filled epilogue, preferably all three!). In this case, Hart frames the narrative most beautifully with a prologue and epilogue set where hero and heroine first meet, reconciling past to present. Under the Boss’s Mistletoe isn’t quite re-united lovers, or second-chance at love, but it does bring together one wild youthful kiss shared by antagonists into their present, now ten-years-later, meeting. Let’s get the review part of this post out of the way first by quoting Audrey Hepburn to Cary Grant in one of Miss B’s favourite films, Charade. “You know what’s wrong with you?” says Audrey to Cary. He shakes his head. “Absolutely nothing.”  (All right, it lags a tad in the middle; and the dialogue sounds contrived there too as Jake and Cassie debate what makes a good marriage. But Miss B. quibbles.)

Other than the virtuoso handling of the romance narrative, what fascinated Miss Bates about this novel and, in general, novels deemed “sweet,” or “fade to black,” is how, when they’re as good as Hart’s, they portray as passionate and interesting a “take” on physical attraction and desire as more explicit ones. Miss Bates examines how the masterful Hart does so in this delightful novel. Be warned, dear reader, Miss Bates quotes the novel at length. Mixed up in these quotations are maybe-spoilers, though the joy of the novel lies in language and characterization, not plot.  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

Stretching Reading Muscles and Learning to Listen

Barefoot_BrideIn the after-math of blogger black-out, midst a stressful, busy work month and nasty flu, Miss Bates turned to her old stand-by and greatest romance love, the category, to help her find pleasure in a few snatched hours of R&R. She coupled reading with listening to an audiobook on dark morning and, thanks to the end of DST, equally dark evening commutes. She didn’t have energy to read more than a few chapters in the evening and wanted the e-reader to tell her that the end was nigh, a you-have-38-minutes-to-finish-this-book message. As for the audiobook commute, let’s say that taking her mind off the sundry tasks she has to fulfill and personalities to juggle are blessings. She hoped that her paltry minutes of comfort and pleasure would offer the thrilling jolt of reading, or listening to things truly great. And the book gods visited boons upon her. Miss Bates read a lovely category romance, Jessica Hart’s Barefoot Bride. It is as thoughtful, well-written, and heart-stoppingly romantic as its title and cover are trite. (Why oh why does Hart have terrible luck with titles and covers? Miss Bates’ favourite Hart, Promoted: To Wife and Mother, is probably the best worst example. Don’t let the title fool you, though, this is one of the best categories Miss Bates has read.) She listened to and is still listening to (it’s a long one, folks) Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, not The Charlotte’s best known book, but sheer pleasure to Miss Bates. She sends out her heartfelt thanks to Sunita for finding the audiobook and Sunita and Liz for listening along with her. Continue reading