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.
Cindy Gerard’s Taking Fire is fourth in the One-Eyed Jacks series, which sprung from her seven-volume Black Ops. Miss Bates admits to reading most of them (with the exception of the peculiar, unreadable Long Way Home). Though the elements of Gerard’s books should feel overdone, and while they’re not “fresh,” their familiarity and the genuineness she brings to them satisfy every time. Thinking about what Gerard did in Taking Fire, Miss Bates ventures to say it’s because Gerard mitigates her heroes’ alpha-ness with portraits of men who know what they’re feeling and feel it deeply. She endows her ultra-feminine heroines with steel and smarts. She skirts demonizing the Middle and Near East with a deep sympathy and positive portrayal of, in this case, Afghanistan’s people. She manages to turn Miss Bates’s reader’s distaste to page-turning sympathy. Taking Fire is of this ilk.
Miss Bates has written elsewhere of the theme of betrayal in romance. Gerard’s Taking Fire works with the same, except in Gerard’s case, heroine betrays hero. Taking Fire is tripartite: hero Bobby Traggert and heroine Talia Levine’s initial affair in Kabul; their reunification in Oman six years later; and, Oman events’ aftermath in Washington D. C.
Ever since youthful Miss Bates watched black-and-white film matinées, she’s a sucker for a narrative set in WWII (also, the glorious Band Of Brothers). She watched The Guns Of Navarone sundry times, even Mrs. Miniver, which gets a nod in Susan Elia MacNeal’s Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, fifth in the Maggie Hope series set during WWII. MacNeal’s murder mystery is historically rich, interweaving fictional and non-fictional characters that never feel contrived. The heart of Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante is the eponymous heroine, Maggie Hope, ostensibly Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s secretary, actually special ops spy and code-breaker. For the most part, the novel takes place in Washington D.C. during Christmas of ’41 to New Year’s ’42. Maggie and her cohorts, David Greene and John Stirling (former RAF pilot and ex-fiancé) accompany Churchill to his meeting with President Roosevelt. For Maggie, David, and John, this is the culmination of what Churchill and they have been hoping for and planning, an alliance giving Britain the edge to defeat Nazi Germany. However, forces in the U.S. and Europe are operating against them, some of global significance and others of an equally pernicious domestic nature. Maggie is embroiled in the latter when figures, aiming to hurt the liberal president and scuttle his war efforts, frame his wife Eleanor. Blanche Balfour, Mrs. Roosevelt’s secretary, is found dead, an apparent suicide, with a note claiming that Eleanor made amorous advances to her. Should the letter be leaked to the media, repercussions would affect Roosevelt and Churchill’s plans … Continue reading
Miss Bates anticipates an Elizabeth Camden novel. She appreciated Camden’s previous novel, Into the Whirlwind. Since then, she follows Camden into her inspirational-lite, historical bent because Camden is a writer with ideas. Into the Whirlwind had grand sweep and great drama in its setting, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Camden is a thoughtful writer who considers context and a story to tell about how historical circumstances affect individual lives, important. She researches carefully and conveys time, place, and the concerns of ordinary people living in that time with skill and sensitivity. Miss Bates lays, however, the same caveats at With Every Breath as she did Into the Whirlwind. Those shortcomings are more apparent in the former. Set in the fictional Washington Memorial Hospital in 1891 Washington D. C., Camden tells the story of Dr. Trevor M. Kendall, tuberculosis specialist and researcher, and his statistician assistant, Kate Livingston, as they battle to cure a deadly and widespread disease. What a compelling idea for the background to a romance, thought Miss Bates, how unique and interesting. Moreover, how inspiring to have a mathematician heroine! Camden’s novel offers all this in concept, but suffers somewhat in execution. Continue reading
Carina’s covers for Barry’s series have been great!
Near the end of Emma Barry’s Private Politics, second title in The Easy Part series, protagonists Liam Nussbaum and Alyse Philips work together on a news story. Liam, owner and editor of a successful political blog, Poindexter, refers to working with Alyse as being “very His Girl Friday.” At that moment, it clicked for Miss Bates. Barry’s second Washington D.C.-set romance novel about the byzantine wheeling and dealing of America’s capital echoes 1930s screwball comedies (which also happen to be Miss B’s film favourites). She was disposed to like Private Politics on this basis alone, but found so much more. While the obvious connection, given the journalistic and political context, is Hawks’ His Girl Friday, Miss Bates found parallels to Capra’s It Happened One Night, with its journalist-hero and rich-girl heroine and themes of professional integrity and disclosure wrapped in a cross-class road romance. While Private Politics contains only a hint of the cross-class element (indeed, Miss Bates loved the cross-religious element to the romance; Liam, middle-class nominal Jew, and Alyse, self-avowed rich-girl, Manhattan-ite WASP), Liam and Alyse journey, though they never hit the road, by navigating the personalities, complexities, and immoral/amoral machinations that people America’s capital.
One of Barry’s many strengths, especially in this series, is writing about the importance of meaningful work to her characters, even while they negotiate a new relationship. Miss Bates is glad to read a romance writer who doesn’t write a workplace romance (not attractive to Miss B.; only Jessica Hart has done it well in Promoted: To Wife and Mother), but still writes about work in a significant way. Moreover, Miss Bates delighted in Barry’s loveable leads and scenes of what Liam and Alyse call “espionage.” She laughed with them, but was moved by their groping awkwardly towards one of the most convincing, most believable HEA-couples she’s read in romance fiction. In a word, she loved Barry’s novel. In this her third, Barry’s hand shows growth and confidence; her pacing is better, her writing coming across as effortless. Thematically, she never relinquishes the romance’s essence: the difficult choice of vulnerability over isolation, of the soft places of the heart over the comforts of pragmatism, and of love over will. Continue reading
Emma Barry’s Brave In Heart was one of Miss Bates’ favourite 2013 reads. She was happy to see that some were disappointed that Barry wasn’t a Rita mention this year, as she deserved to be. Brave In Heart captured Miss Bates’ love and interest from its opening sentence: ” ‘I wish to release you from our engagement.’ ” Dramatic, succinct, utterly hook-able. Special Interests, set amidst the divisive, acrimonious politics of present-day Washington DC, took longer to win her loyalty, but win it it did. Witness Special Interests‘ opening line: ” ‘Oh good, it’s not too crowded.’ ” Less élan, wouldn’t you say, dear reader? The historical context of Brave In Heart was a winning canvas to hero and heroine, Theo and Margaret: the American Civil War, life and death, men leaving, women left behind, a nation rent. The protagonists, Theo and Margaret, were seasoned, a couple taking a second-chance at love and commitment, working out old hurts and antagonisms, separation, loss, anxiety, and … drumroll, please … correspondence. Beautiful, moving letters, the like of which we listened to on Ken Burns’ The Civil War, enthralled. How can text messages, cell calls, memos, and the cynical shenanigans of contemporary American politics compare? Special Interests had the greater challenge: to build a love story out of the mundane and build it Ms Barry did: with humour and pathos. Continue reading