I’m not certain what possessed me to want to read Fiona Davis’s The Masterpiece, other than a yen to leave the familiar reader-world of genre fiction for a while. Romance and mystery fiction are like comfortable only-at-home pants and sweatshirt. I ease into them and enjoy their sense of familiarity; on occasion, they also stifle. I need “something else,” so I venture into other reading territory. As a result I’ve read some remarkable non-fiction, Philippe Sands’s East West Street, the overhyped Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, or left-me-agog Yuval Harari’s Sapiens. This time around, I went for historical fiction, that in retrospect, has a great dose of women’s fiction to it (cue moue of disappointment) Fiona Davis’s The Masterpiece. I love all things art and museums and thought this might be the thing to refresh my romance-murder-mystery-reading malaise. Written in third-person POV, The Masterpiece tells the story of two women, very much of their time and circumstance, 1920s-30s illustrator Clara Darden and 1970s breast cancer survivor, newly divorced Virginia Clay. The main character, however, is NYC’s Grand Central Terminal, its fortunes and misfortunes, its acme and nadir, its glory, dereliction, and resurrection. Of all the novel’s elements, I liked the building and Virginia the best.
I both dreaded and looked forward to Barbara O’Neal’s The Art Of Inheriting Secrets, dreaded because I dislike women’s fiction and looked forward to because the blurb offered gothic potential. In the end, the novel’s gothic and romance aspects outweighed the women’s fic. I was one contentedly satiated reader at pages’ end. Be warned, there’s also first-person narration, but the narrator is engaging, funny, self-deprecating, intelligent, and as the hero notes, looks like Kate Winslet (I adore Winslet, ever since I saw her in Heavenly Creatures). Our narrator-heroine is San Francisco-based food writer and editor of the fictional magazine Egg and Hen, Olivia Shaw. When the novel opens, Olivia’s life has taken some spectacularly difficult, life-altering turns. She arrives in Hertfordshire’s Saint Ives Cross having recently learned she has inherited a crumbling estate, Rosemere Priory. She is mourning her mother, only six weeks gone, but she’s also learned that her mother kept her identity as Lady Caroline Shaw secret. The drippily unhappy heroine, the rain, the English countryside, the quaint village, down to the country-accented friendly cab-driver who drops her off at the local inn, absorbed me. I loved the premise of the family secrets, the crumbling priory, Olivia’s voice, and the notion of a heroine navigating a new place, culture, community, and her own new-found, strange identity.
Kate Hewitt’s Willoughby Close series is more women’s fiction than romance and yet, even though Miss Bates is no fan of women’s fiction, she embraced Hewitt’s little English-village-life novels. They’re written with a poignant, gentle touch. Their protagonists are often people with difficult pasts. They’re squarely focussed on the heroine’s growth and POV, but contain heroes no less likeable, sexy, and burdened with their own compelling baggage.
Kiss Me At Willoughby Close opens with the will-reading of Ava Mitchell’s older, moneyed husband and the news that David left Ava only 10 000 pounds, his vast fortune going to his grown, rapacious children by his first wife. Ava is genuinely grief-stricken over her husband. She may not have been in love with him. Five years ago, she was urged by poverty and lack of opportunity and education to marry him for the creature comforts and ease he could provide; nevertheless, she cared for and about him and been content in his company. Now, Emma and Simon are staring her down coldly and informing her she must leave the only home she’s ever known in a week’s time, with only her clothes and David’s “generous” gift of a mini Austin only. As Ava quips, “For being a trophy wife, she didn’t possess that many trophies.” She moves into Willoughby Close, following the heroines of Hewitt’s previous novels in the series, who become neighbours and, eventually, friends. Continue reading
Miss Bates loved Kate Hewitt’s A Di Sione For the Greek’s Pleasure and willingly delved into Hewitt’s women’s fic/romance incarnation in Meet Me At Willoughby Close. Meet Me has enough romance, and a likeable one at that, to satisfy a rom-reader. It contains an endearingly goofy heroine, Ellie Matthews, working at figuring out her divorced, single mum life, moving away from family and, for the first time, at 28, tackling life with eleven-year-old daughter, Abby. Ellie has a new job as an “administrative assistant” in the University of Oxford history department and new cottage in Wychwood-on-Lea, at Willoughby Close. Ellie is paired with her “boss,” a history professor she’s temporarily assigned to, the Darcy-like, upper-crust, Victorian-Era historian Oliver Venables, he of the grey-green eyes and impressive physique. Meet Me At Willoughby Close is funny and romantic. It tackles some serious subjects, with a light touch but no less profoundly: parent-child relationships, bullying, family dynamics, deadbeat dads, and class. Oh, and the joys and vagaries of pet ownership. Ellie’s dog, Marmite, is a great loping mutt whose exuberance (and wee bit of flatulence) elicit reader-giggles in every scene he snuffles into. Continue reading
Miss Bates was never a fan of Sex and the City‘s cynicism about love. It was a show more about sex and friendship than love, despite its final concession to the HEA. One could say that Sarah Morgan’s first “From Manhattan With Love” series title, Sleepless in Manhattan, could be likened to “sex and the city”, but shouldn’t be. If it draws readers because it ostensibly echoes Sex and the City, then, so be it and more success and readership to it! But Morgan’s romances are never cynical, conceding to the HEA with one hand and nodding to the divorce rate with the other. Morgan’s romances are funny, loving, sentimental (MissB is tired of the pejorative sense given to the word), and hopeful. Sleepless In Manhattan introduces us to the series, which centres on three friends, originally from Puffin Island, the setting of Morgan’s previous series and possessed of two of her best recent roms, Playing By the Greek’s Rules and Some Kind of Wonderful. Paige Walker, Frankie Cole, and Eva Jordan work for Star Events, a Manhattan event-planning company … until they don’t. Meany office manager “Cynthia” fires all three. They make their way to the brownstone they share with Paige’s protective, supportive, and lovely brother Matt to drown their unemployed sorrows in wine, chocolate, and ice cream. Continue reading
Jodi Thomas’s Rustler’s Moon is the third Ransom Canyon romance. Miss Bates liked the first one, Ransom Canyon, and reviewed it with much lauding. In Rustler’s Moon, Thomas continues to weave several narrative threads set in the allegorically-named, fictional town of Crossroads, Texas. Thomas recounts four story-lines, some of which end in an HEA, while others are HEA-pending. The main story-line and HEA-concluded romance is the bantering, wooing story of Angie Harold, newly-arrived and sole curator of the Ransom Canyon Museum, and Wilkes Wagner, local rancher and historian. Thomas continues the story of Yancy Grey, ex-con and custodian and protector of the “old folks” living at the Evening Shadows Retirement Community. She also continues the story of Sheriff Dan Brigman’s daughter, Lauren, experiencing her first year at Texas Tech and trying to negotiate a relationship with the driven Lucas Reyes. Thomas introduces the character of septuagenarian Carter Mayes, whose memories of cave paintings of stick figures haunt him still sixty years later and bring him to Ransom Canyon in search of them every spring. Alternating story-lines in third-person deep POV, Thomas captures something about small-town romance that many of its writers miss. She creates an authentic sense of community because she doesn’t sacrifice her secondary characters to one-dimensionality. It may be she sacrifices all her characters to one-dimensionality – Miss Bates leaves that judgement up to Rustler’s Moon‘s readers.
Miss Bates loves pie, apple, cherry, strawberry-rhubarb, but nothing beats humble pie. She happily munches on it after sneering, snarling, and dramatically slapping her forehead with “What was I thinking?” reading Jodi Thomas’s Ransom Canyon – it’s women’s fiction. More fool Miss Bates because Thomas’s novel has as much going for it as it does going on.
Ransom Canyon is braided with three narrative strands: the romance between dour, tragic Staten Kirkland, rancher, and Quinn O’Grady, lavender farmer, reclusive pianist, and his dead wife’s best friend; the burgeoning feelings between Lucas Reyes, ambitious teen-ager and hand at Staten’s ranch, and Lauren Brigman, dreamy girl and sheriff’s daughter; and, Yancy Grey, ex-con and handyman to the adorable old coots, all former teachers, at the local retirement home. Add the blue-cape-swirling, curvaceous, sharp-tongued Miss Ellie, nurse-in-training, and frequent visitor to the retirement home and Yancy Grey, at 25, newly released from the big house, has himself a serious case of desire. Ransom Canyon is set in Texas ranching country, in the allegorically-named town of Crossroads, not far from Lubbock. Thomas weaves the three story-lines beautifully, offering redemption, renewal, and love to the broken and troubled – and leaving pending romance threads in the stories of the young ones, Yancy and Ellie, Lucas and Lauren. Continue reading
Miss Bates is thrilled to have the pleasure and privilege of offering her readers Janet Webb’s wonderful review of Charlotte Lamb’s A Violation for June’s TBR Challenge. (Please note that the novel under review contains the heroine’s rape. Miss Bates hasn’t read A Violation … yet, that is, after reading Janet’s review … and can’t say how explicitly the subject is treated.)
Blurb: She had it all, conventional wisdom said – a creative career in glamorous advertising and a handsome, upwardly mobile boyfriend. Yet the gnawing dissatisfaction Clare Forrester felt was pushing her to the crisis point. She had no answers, but she knew something had to change.
Then fate intervened with a nightmare – a senseless violent rape she was powerless to prevent. When time began again after that shocking moment, Clare’s life and the lives of those closest to her were changed beyond belief.
Values, friendships, family relations – all were traumatically altered. And now the question was, could Clare rebuild any life at all from the shattered fragments of her self. And would the power of love heal the deepest wound a woman could know … Continue reading
Miss Bates isn’t sure what’s happened to her ARC-TBR lately, but there’s a strange conglomeration of slightly-off-romance narratives, like Reay’s Lizzy and Jane, or a recent cozy mystery that failed and will appear in an “exorcising dnfs” post soon. Fiona Harper’s Make My Wish Come True follows in the same vein and is more women’s fiction (one cut above chick-lit in Miss Bates’ no-no universe) than romance. The primary relationship account in Harper’s novel is the working out of a sibling relationship and the romances, one per sister, are secondary. Nevertheless, having enjoyed Harper’s 2012 Snowbound In the Earl’s Castle, with its aristocrat hero and stained-glass restorer heroine, Miss Bates was willing to tolerate yet another sisters-working-out-an-acrimonious-relationship narrative (and so soon after Reay’s similar themed). Make My Wish Come True added delight with some greatly humorous moments, third-person narration, and significantly less ponderous content. It also helped make the women’s-fiction medicine go down when Harper’s novel echoed two of Miss Bates’ sentimental film favourites, The Holiday (as a matter of fact, younger sister, Gemma, watches this in one scene) and more brilliant fare, Shirley Valentine. (Miss Bates wishes she’d noted this Christmas-set novel; she’d have made it one of her November-to-December Christmas-themed review-posts.) Continue reading
With a book about food, love, and family, Miss Bates launches her review by eating humble pie. “Never say never” should be Miss B’s mantra regarding romance reading. Katherine Reay’s Lizzy and Jane is mild romance; it’s … GASP … women’s fiction, a fictive genre Miss Bates purports to abhor. Indeed, there’s been scorn-heaping. It’s the type of fiction she’s most likely to DNF. She finds it precious and precious becomes boring and boring becomes the worst kind of sentimental. Reay’s novel skirts close to DNF territory: estranged sisters (sibling relationships have never interested Miss B.), acrimony remaining from their mother’s illness, CANCER, one of the two sisters ill with CANCER herself, confronting the past, each other, and salvaging, or sundering, relationships. It focuses on younger sister, Elizabeth, “Lizzy,” Hughes, 33, moving back to the Pacific Northwest (from New York City where her chef’s career was floundering) to come to terms with people she left behind: retired firefighter dad and especially older sister, Jane. Her journey tries to answer: what is home? What do we owe the people closest to us, particularly those with whom we share strained relations? What is family? From where do we derive meaning and purpose? How do we find God amidst acrimony and failure?
It is the start of the Lenten season for Miss Bates, a season of re-evaluation and reflection, and Reay’s novel was a perfect fit. While suffering from the failure of inspirational fiction to make a tangible, ritualistic participation in church life as essential to defining ourselves as Christians, Reay’s novel nevertheless took a eucharistic perspective through Lizzy’s creative food acts. And her spirit guide, and that of others as well, like her sister, Jane, was Jane Austen. Like food, which serves as healer and binder, literature stands in as such as well. Continue reading