REVIEW: Deanna Raybourn’s A TREACHEROUS CURSE

Treacherous_CurseDeanna Raybourn’s third Veronica Speedwell, Victorian-set mystery finds her prickly, sleuthing pair, Veronica and Stoker, where they’ve settled since book one’s conclusion: in Bishop’s Folly, setting up the Earl of Rosemorran’s museum from his vast, eclectic, esoteric collection. In A Treacherous Curse, their museological endeavours are interrupted by a mystery that tickles their adventurous spirits and curiosity, challenging and deepening their relationship. Unlike my other favourite historical mystery series, C. S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr, it is interesting to note how Raybourn’s sleuthing protagonists are not endowed with a strong sense of justice. They’re driven by a crossword-puzzle-doer’s instincts, the need to solve the quandary, or as Veronica quips, “To investigate one murder is a curiosity. To investigate two is a habit.” This is not by way of criticism. It isn’t fair to compare persimmons with pineapples, but I do like to muse on authors’ world-building and thematic choices. What gives Raybourn’s series moral impetus, at least in these initial volumes, is the revelation of our main characters’ pasts. (In A Treacherous Curse‘s case, Stoker’s is under scrutiny.) Maybe this will change in future volumes? What else informs Raybourn’s series’ moral impetus is the fierce protectiveness and loyalty that Veronica and Stoker (aka Templeton-Vane) hold for each other. There’s romance dearth for romance readers, but enough of a spark to keep me reading, for this and sundry reasons. (I am delighted that Veronica ogles Stoker’s Laocoönian body, while he exhibits near-prudish bashfulness. So much fun in those scenes!) 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.
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MINI-REVIEW: Isabel Cooper’s LEGEND OF THE HIGHLAND DRAGON, Or Brogue Meets East End

Legend Of the Highland DragonMiss Bates has read only a handful of paranormal romances.  For example, she read J. R. Ward’s Lover Eternal, #2 in the Blackdagger Brotherhood, and enjoyed it, but never returned to the series, or any others from one of the romance genre’s most popular incarnations.  Isobel Cooper’s Legend Of the Highland Dragon, though well-written and worthy of praise on certain levels, reminded her why she didn’t, and doesn’t, read paranormal romance, or does so rarely.  It’s not that paranormal romance is less worthy of her attention; it is, for Miss Bates, a matter of sensibility: and there’s something about these transforming/shifting heroes/heroines that she finds … well, silly and unconvincing. 

On the  other hand, she acknowledges that paranormal romance, more than any other romance sub-genre, confronts and explores the encounter with the “other”: its hyperbolic, and/or fantastical nature brings into the foreground the foreignness of another person/creature and the sheer miracle of recognition, of the romantic assertion that “I know you.  I see you. You are my equal, my companion, my familiar friend,” to quote the psalm.  Cooper’s novel does this no less and no less well than any well-written, tongue-in-cheek, witty paranormal romance … yet, it fell a little flat for Miss Bates and she often had trouble buying into the narrative. Continue reading

REVIEW: Brenda Novak’s THROUGH THE SMOKE, Not “Worth the Fight”

Through The SmokeWhat happens when an author names her hero Truman?  The obvious.  Her reader has the plain, geeky, tight-lipped 33rd U.S. president floating in her head as she tries tries tries to conjure the magically engrossing experience that reading a romance novel brings. A woeful, bespectabled, steel-haired figure intrudes into the narrative space.  Thus it was with Brenda Novak’s Through the Smoke and her strangely-dubbed hero, Truman.  There might be an allegory there, you say?  Truman Stranhope, Earl of Druridge, is a True Man, a loyal man, a good man, a steadfast and loving man? Actually, as Miss Bates argues below, more a nonentity. 

In her note to the reader, Novak says that her girlhood reading of Jane Eyre informs her return to historical romance, “I love the gothic feel, the air of mystery and … the heart-pounding romance.”  Indeed, Miss Bates recognizes that Jane-Eyrean elements are in Through the Smoke: a mysterious hall named Blackmoor, a fire, a scarred hero, the nefarious wife-figure, an ingenue heroine true to her convictions and spunk-full, the cross-class nature of the protagonists’ relationship … even the housekeeper privy to the socially transgressive affair of hero and heroine.  It’s all there.  And, Miss Bates’ expectations rode high … as she willed herself not to flinch every time she read the hero’s name.
Continue reading to learn how Novak’s novel held up

REVIEW: Anne Stuart’s NEVER KISS A RAKE/Fallen Angel/Seraph/Cherub …

Never Kiss A RakeWhen Miss Bates returned to reading romance five years ago, one of the first books she read was Anne Stuart’s Black Ice. She loved it; in retrospect, the writing was over-wrought, but the ingenue heroine and dark, dark hero were engaging and believable. She held the same hope for Stuart’s latest, a Victorian romance, Never Kiss A Rake, the first in a series, if one goes by the sequel-tantalizing epilogue. Sadly, this Stuart feels tired, like she’s going through the motions of creating a romance, but lost the heart for it. The recipe’s the same; the inspiration is absent. The fire’s gone and she’s repeating herself. What’s true for the writer becomes the experience of the reader. Even though the dark hero and ingenue heroine are still present, they’re not convincing. An ember glows softly in the last twenty per cent of the novel, alas, too little, too late. Miss Bates was sympathetic to our hero and heroine, Bryony and Adrian, at long last, sort of, but so much that was wrong came before that she can’t say to the discerning romance reader not to miss Never Kiss A Rake.   Continue reading, much snark follows

GASP: Patricia Gaffney’s TO HAVE AND TO HOLD

When Miss Bates turned the last page of To Love and To Cherish, she sighed with relief. It hadn’t been as bad as she’d feared. Nothing’d shocked her; nothing’d disturbed her all that much. On the contrary, in the end, her sensibilities were at ease; she thought Christy endearing and a great study of the meaning of Christian faith. Anne was a good, decent heroine, with integrity and had blossomed in the most wonderful way. All was well in Miss Bates’s romance universe. Gaffney’s first Wyckerley novel had inspired associations with many 19th century novels Miss Bates’d loved, still loved. It was all good and what need was there for any fuss? To Love and To Cherish was what its title claimed: loving and cherishing the other, making the other precious in one’s eyes. Christy comes to this state naturally; Anne has to learn it. There is a darkness to her understanding; there is a price, but it is one that she makes of her own free will. Then, Miss Bates read To Have and To Hold and is reeling. She doesn’t have much to say, hopes to reach some equanimity by the time a much-anticipated discussion takes place at Something More. For now, however, there are only half-formed thoughts.  Read on at your peril; Miss Bates is too riled to say that much and the little she does say would be of mild interest only to those who’ve read the novel

IMPRESSIONS/CONNECTIONS: Courtney Milan’s UNLOCKED, Or Katie Keeps Her Golden Boy

UnlockedAlong with the frisson of utter delight that the first commentator (Pamela from Badass Romance) to MBRR gave Miss Bates, in the exchange, she articulated what always pulled at her when she read Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Yes, Jane got her man, a little broken, but she got him; yes, in the end, she was an heiress. Yes, she had her allotted babies, an indication he wasn’t broken where it counted. Jane won her glorious HEA. More than anything, however, in reading Jane, Miss Bates asks: quoting Hamlet (because Shakespeare always says it better) why do we endure “the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes”? Why indeed? Why does Jane endure the nastiness of Rochester’s house-party, the fortune-telling fiasco, Blanche and her mother’s jibes, the horrible aunt and cousins, the evils of Lowood? (To a certain extent because she has to, but let’s not be reductive, Jane never is.) Why do we sob in self-pity when we read these passages and secretly remember every hurt to our self-worth and read on and on even though reading causes us pain? Because at the end of Jane Eyre, at the end of every GREAT romance novel, the heroine (or whoever stands in for the “heroine,” but that’s for another discussion) isn’t just LOVED, SHE IS VINDICATED. Hah, we say, see, she showed them! (The ugly-duckling-fat-girl-awkward-girl-heroine incarnates our vindication fantasy … maybe it’s even sweeter than getting your man, the foiling of the queen bee and bullies?) If you read on, yes, Miss Bates’ll link this inchoate burst to Milan’s novella and more

SECOND THOUGHTS On Patricia Gaffney’s TO LOVE AND TO CHERISH: Why Not JANE too?

In the cool of the evening, Miss Bates swatted a fist-sized wasps’ nest from the back porch. She’d like to do the same to Gaffney’s novel. No matter, the wasps and it will settle in the vicinity to plague her. Not for a full and missbatesian pedantic post, but a pinata swipe, yes, she’ll manage. Miss Bates has settled into ambivalence’s discomfort zone. Ambivalence in an ordered spinster’s world … not good. Need a lodestone, a familiar one … like Rochester at his neediest, she calls out to “Jane.” If you want more, read on, but clarity still eludes

IMPRESSIONS Of Patricia Gaffney’s TO LOVE AND TO CHERISH

After supper, Miss Bates tried a piece of wasabi-flavoured chocolate. The smoky-sweet flavour of the dark chocolate was familiar; the wasabi, not so much. This is also her reaction to Gaffney’s To Love and To Cherish. She can’t really review it per se because she’s not sure what she can say about it other than you might want to read it. She doesn’t even really want to review it. There’s more, but not much, nor is it articulate