Kate Noble writes romance of complexity and thought. And her most recent The Dare and the Doctor is wrought in this vein: thoughtful, with nuanced characters caught in believable dilemmas, and with growing feelings of love for the wrong person. Miss Bates admits that, while she enjoyed the novel in its entirety, prose and characterization and plot, her favourite part was the opening section for its epistolary nature. Miss Margaret Babcock of Lincolnshire, horticulturist extraordinare, she of rose cross-breeding fame, found a friend and kindred spirit in Dr. Rhys Gray, former army surgeon and now Greenwich-based, when he attended her father at their estate and relieved him of his gout. Since, and serving in a marvelous series of exchanged letters, Margaret and Rhys have enjoyed a close, warm, and witty correspondence, deepening and growing their friendship. Knowing that Margaret’s dream is to present her prize roses to the Horticultural Society, Rhys arranges for her to meet with them in London. Margaret travels to London to stay with their mutual friends, Lord Ashby, Ned; wife, Phoebe; and cherubically fun six-month-old, Edward. Rhys, in turn, travels from his Greenwich laboratory to London to reconnect with old and dear friends Ned and Phoebe and see Margaret.
One of Miss Bates’s favourite poems is Robert Frost’s “The Secret Sits:”: “We dance round in a ring and suppose,/But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.” Frost identifies our tendency to avoid truths which reveal our psychological soft spots. Inside us and between us sits the secret and the secret is truth and truth hurts. But it also “sets us free”. Between the hero and heroine of Cathyrn Parry’s The Secret Between Them is a secret haunting them since their teens. It was watered with guilt and its name is shame. Jessica Hughes was a star figure skater who practised her sport in Kyle Northrup’s step-father’s rink. Kyle was a star hockey player who also practised there. Kyle and his step-father’s relationship was one of anger and recrimination, especially after Kyle’s mum died when he was twelve. Kyle’s anger against Joe, his step-dad, resulted in an injury to Jessica and dashed her Olympic hopes. Kyle left Wallis Point, New Hampshire, ashamed and vowing never to return, to join the Marines. Years later, he returns, an injured veteran with a prosthetic foot, to claim his inheritance from Joe, the very rink he fled from. Jessica is still in Wallis Point, a dedicated physical therapist, no longer “the sweetheart of Wallis Point,” but still “the great ache of his teenage years … his dream girl.” Continue reading
Karen Templeton wrote one of Miss Bates’s favourite Christmas romances, Dear Santa. Like that fave, Templeton’s A Soldier’s Promise contains the elements that she does so well: a protagonist emerges from a time of crisis, difficulty, or grief; the other manifests as a helping figure; believable, likable children and animals; and, a plot centering on the creation of a new, or blended family. Oh, and humour. And poignancy. And an everyday casualness to the dialogue that makes her characters feel like they’re our neighbours, or we’d like them to be.
After ten years, Levi Talbot returns permanently to Whispering Pines, New Mexico, from serving in Afghanistan. He is a changed but better man than the wild, adventure-seeking bad boy he was. How to convince Valerie Lopez, née Oswald, the woman who best remembers his recklessness and cause of her deceased husband’s enlistment, Tommy following his best friend into the military? Valerie is a widow with two daughters, young Josie and baby Risa. She blames Levi for Tommy’s decision, even if not his death, and Levi is torn: afraid to open old wounds and resentments, but how not to keep his promise to Tommy to help his family? “Because he’d made a promise. One he fully intended to keep. Whether his best friend’s widow was good with that idea or not.”
“The choppers appeared just after the sun.”
Human beings make sense of experience’s ephemerality by embodying it in art. Maya Lin’s controversial Vietnam Veterans War Memorial was/is integral to healing war’s wounds. It offers solace and remembrance as vets and families, foreigners and natives, bring offerings of flowers, pictures, etc., touch, wonder, and heal as they meditate on the war’s wastes and ravages (war is a universal experience, is it not?). Yusef Komunyakaa’s Vietnam-War-Memorial-set poem, “Facing It” also embodies the war, recounting a vet’s turbulent, ambivalent emotions as he touches and is reflected in the wall, naming loss, anger, and the ever-present American tragedy of race. (Don’t read this humble post, but read and listen to the poem as linked. It’s powerful.) The humble romance genre offers its embodiment in Kathleen Korbel’s A Soldier’s Heart (1994). The novel’s opening line is the prologue’s introduction to nurse Claire Henderson, who held dying Marine Tony Riordan and willed him to live. Twenty-three years later, Tony’s final act of putting his war wounds to rest, psychic where physical are long-healed, is to seek, find, and thank Claire. What he finds in her haunted eyes is the confusion, guilt, and self-destructive impulses of his own struggle with PTSD. Continue reading
The 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
Miss Bates is peeved by the claim, and many readers make it sheepishly eyes downcast, that romance fiction is “a comfort read.” It may very well be, and she’s happy if enjoyed as such, but it’s often used to diminish the genre. She applauds rom writers, like Molly O’Keefe, who make reading romance anything but, who make the reader work to earn that HEA (and why O’Keefe runs the risk of making it meh-anti-climactic). It’s great that romance can be visceral and uncomfortable and we have O’Keefe, and others in her company (Cecilia Grant, Victoria Dahl are two who come to mind) who offer this reader experience couched in the “pretty and titillating” many readers who don’t read romance accuse the genre of being. Convincing them otherwise? That ship sailed with the Pinta and Santa Maria for Miss Bates. Second in the Into the Wild historical romance series, Tempted, like its predecessor, Seduced, proves a fine punch to the reader-gut, tackling how the horrors of war inflict psychic wounds on men and women, obstructing and obscuring intimacy and love. Continue reading