Sweet Rocket’s Tumblr is high on splendor and sartorial missteps. Come on over (after you’ve feasted your eyes on this trashtastic Hideous Romance Novel Cover, of course)!
Sweet Rocket sometimes receives letters (alright, comments) that just beg for a broader audience. One @honoriachubb sent this in:
Hi.Every time I look on your blog,I’m captivated by the frontispiece image,of the girl with a gun,and the man in a mask,what is it from,and who was the illustrator.thanks
Oh @honoriachubb! I’m so glad you asked!
That header image is pulled from the cover of Barbara Cartland’s The Outrageous Lady. Here’s the full cover image:
The artist is Francis Marshall. As far as I can tell, Marshall illustrated most of Barbara Cartland’s covers from the 1960s-1980s. Here are a few more for your enjoyment:
Now, true confession time: I’ve never been able to finish a Barbara Cartland novel. Ever. But I adore these covers.
My guilty pleasure is vintage category romances, but the experience is often like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: for every melt-in-your-mouth truffle, you get three of those nasty nougat-y things that hurt your teeth and make you swear off Russell Stover for the duration. When you find an author like Rebecca Flanders, however, it’s like someone traded your Russell Stover box for a cute little bag of those Lindor Truffles — every one’s a winner.
I discovered Rebecca Flanders’ Harlequin backlist by way of Second Sight, which I found by Googling romance novels with librarian heroines (it’s for a project I’m working on — I have a great job ;) ). One thing led to another, as it usually does with me and books, and within days (okay, hours) of finishing Second Sight, I’d also polished off Suddenly Love.
Here are the synopses:
She gave him two gifts: her love and second sight
Normally, Jennifer Kiel was the head librarian in the town of Southworth, Massachusetts, but on that bright autumn day Jennifer had donned cape and veil, transforming herself into Madame Voltaire, the fortune-teller of Southworth’s annual fair. Somehow, Adam Wilson found his way to Madame Voltaire’s tent-and two lives were changed forever.
For Jennifer, who suffered a “condition,” who’d led a quiet life in which very little was allowed to happen, Adam was an unexpected gift. And for Adam, who’d been running away from himself, trying to outdistance time, Jennifer was the miracle he’d never thought he would find….
Her life was routine until suddenly love…
In the time it took to sneeze, Beth Greene hit him.
As he slumped over the hood of her car, she feared the worst, but the man insisted he was uninjured. Nevertheless, Beth drove him to her store, Greene Drugs, to administer first aid to a nasty scrape on his leg. It was then she discovered whom she’d hit: Corey Fletcher, the million-dollar face. Successful businessman, model, actor, racing car driver. Why was this jet-setter jogging down the peaceful streets of Virginia Beach? And worse, why did he keep returning?
If these synopses have you gritting your teeth against the unbearable sugary-ness, remember what I said about Russell Stover versus Lindor Truffles — like the best chocolates, Second Sight and Suddenly Love have that little bit of bite that keeps them from being cloyingly sweet.
Second Sight really surprised me. Jennifer and Adam may have the meet-cute for the ages, and there is an element of insta-love at work here, but as the story progresses and you get to know both characters better, both the meet-cute and the insta-love make sense for these two, and the depiction of love in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business is revealed for the double-edged sword it often is.
And, oh, these two crazy kids — Jennifer is a librarian, which gives her the winning combination of wisdom untold and utter unflappability, and Adam is a photojournalist who’s covered everything from war to soft-core porn. They fall in love (sorta) at the fair, but they really bond over a book, one that becomes important to the book’s secondary plot — an intellectual freedom battle in Jennifer’s library. The book (not a real book), The Tale of Elias Cotton, has “incest, rape, murder and explicit perversion… that precede Elias’s discovery of his own latent homosexuality” and naturally goes over like the proverbial turd in the punch bowl in tiny Southworth. Half the town, including Jennifer’s overprotective sister and brother-in-law, are gunning for Jennifer’s job, and there’s a rousing scene in which Jennifer uses Shakespeare and the Bible as examples of works with similar content as The Tale of Elias Cotton.
Oh, and there’s a love story, too. A very bittersweet love story, as both of these characters have Big Secrets that I can’t give away without venturing into spoiler territory. Read it and weep, literally.
I knew after reading Second Sight that I had to read more Rebecca Flanders to know whether she was really as good as I thought. I chose Suddenly Love because it, too, works into an interest of mine — car racing as depicted in romance novels (I have theories about this like you wouldn’t believe. You’d think I was writing a master’s thesis).
Beth and Corey have a meet-cute that is even funnier than Jennifer and Adam’s. She’s suffering from a dilly of a cold, and hits him with her car while sneezing, then gets high on antihistamines and acts like a fool.
Beth is one of my all-time favorite small-town heroines, what with her almost-fiance who won’t commit, her bratty juvenile delinquent teenage nephew, and her dedication to her career as the owner of the only drugstore still selling ice-cream cones for a nickel. She’s happy with her life, and though she acknowledges her attraction to Corey from the get go, she’s not sure if she wants the disruption.
I was ready to dislike Corey early on. Flanders makes an near-misstep by making Corey too much. He’s an actor, a shill for a deodorant (actually, that part’s funny), and a genius in addition to being a racing driver. Thankfully, Flanders herself seems to lose interest in the acting and modeling, mentioning them only intermittently as the book progresses, focusing more on his racing career.
And Corey is plenty larger than life as a racing driver. He wears bizarre clothing. He shows up at Beth’s church in his bizarre clothing, much to her horror. He often goes barefoot (more on that later). He sends tacky flower arrangements and drunk dials. And he is adorable, and obviously crazy about Beth. You never get in Corey’s head — this is, after all, an early 1980s Harlequin — but the reader often knows better than Beth what Corey’s thinking.
“I don’t think you’re capable of talking seriously,” Beth tells Corey at one point. But by this time, the reader already knows that he always calls her Elizabeth when he’s serious.
Beth’s big problem is his lifestyle, of course. One of the funniest parts of the book is when Corey tricks her into going to a racetrack to test a car with him. She’s disgusted by the racing groupies and the party atmosphere, where “a man with a shoulder-length braid asked her to go to bed with him. Just like that. She refused politely…” Okay, maybe you need to read the whole scene, but it’s funny.
Like Second Sight, the tone of Suddenly Love turns bittersweet as Beth and Corey try to fit each other into their very different lives. I will not spoil the story by going into the details, but the last three-quarters of the book will have you tearing up.
What elevates both these books above the usual vintage (or new) contemporary is Flanders’ writing. She tends to get a little purple in the love scenes (both books have several) but otherwise, her prose and dialogue are among the best I’ve read in category romance. In a wonderful scene in Second Sight, Adam is telling Jennifer about his progression from a news photographer in Vietnam and to a photographer of Playboy-style centerfolds, expressing his revulsion for both assignments.
[Jennifer] said quietly, “are you as bitter as you sound?”
He refused to meet her eyes for a moment. “I hope not,” he said softly. And then, looking at her honestly, he added, “I try not to be.”
This exchange comes at a pivotal time in the development of their relationship, and tells so much about both characters.
That brings me to another point about what raises Flanders’ writing above other contemporaries — her heroes and heroines have lives outside of each other, and real careers. As a librarian and former newspaper reporter myself, I appreciated the very real, if dated, information Flanders gives about Jennifer and Adam’s careers. As for Beth and Corey, Beth’s job as a pharmacist and small business owner are so true to life, and also, surprisingly enough, is Corey’s career as a racing driver. Yes, you see the parties and the groupies, but you also see Corey at the tedious, smelly work of testing a car, and see him jet-lagged from a career that literally means flying from one continent to another continuously.
Second Sight and Suddenly Love are such an improvement over the usual Harlequin American Romance small town romances because Flanders really gives you a feel for the settings. Most of the small town Harlequins I’ve read fall into two categories: the ones where the small town serves as a cardboard background, or worse, the ones peopled with characters who seem to have no life outside of playing matchmaker to the heroine and/or hero. Suddenly Love’s Virginia Beach comes more alive as a town, but Second Sight nails the feel of a small town better — gossip abounds, everyone knows everyone else, and doctors still make house calls.
Two final notes about these wonderful books:
First, both books are very dated. From Jennifer’s stamping books and using card catalogs to Beth’s telegrams and Princess Diana hairdo, they are rooted in the very early 1980s. Personally, this is one of the things I love most about pre-1990s contemporaries; they are time capsules, in a sense, and reading them is more like reading historicals.
Second, but related — remember Corey’s awful wardrobe and predilection for wandering around barefoot? I am 99.9 percent certain that Corey is based upon a very popular Formula One racing driver of the 1970s, James Hunt. His physical description is very similar to James Hunt’s, as is his cheeky demeanor. To wit:
Hunt was also known for showing up at a racing banquet barefoot, and for wearing a patch on his racing coveralls that read “Sex: The Breakfast of Champions.” Just for informative purposes, Corey is the third racing driver romance novel hero I’ve come across who seems to owe a debt to James Hunt. Hunt, who died in 1993, was as large a personality in life as any of his fictional counterparts. He would have appreciated the gesture.
More vintage contemporaries you might enjoy:
Just as I am about to embark upon a post in which I talk about the reasons I don’t finish books, I happen upon Terri’s review of a book that I could not bring myself to finish. Terri’s thoughts are so like mine it’s uncanny…
Originally posted on Bodice Ripper Novels ✿:
GENRE: Historical Romance
SETTING: England, 1800′s (?)
SERIES: The Reckless Brides, #4
AUTHOR SITE: link
MY GRADE: D
FROM PUBLISHER:When Lady Claire Jellicoe agreed to a walk in the moonlight, she never imagined her titled companion might have brutal motives. Nor could she have dreamed up such a brave rescue by the most unexpected savior of all: an inscrutable nobleman with a daring plan of escape—and a deliciously tempting embrace…
Timothy ‘Tanner’ Evans, the Duke of Fenmore, has palmed more treasures than he can count. Even for a man who grew up thieving in London’s stews, a stolen bride should be beyond the pale. But Fenmore won’t let scandal ruin the spirited beauty’s reputation. And now that she’s stolen his heart, how can he ever let her go…?
MY THOUGHTS:Not good, folks. The beautiful cover is the only good part. This story…
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The Guardian is reporting that author Mary Stewart passed away on May 9, 2014.
The grand dame of the contemporary Gothic romance, Stewart published her first novel, Madam Will You Talk? in 1956. Stewart was an instant success, ushering in a new era of popular fiction populated by a new kind of heroine. Writes Rachel Hore for The Guardian:
Stewart’s stories were narrated by poised, smart, highly educated young women who drove fast cars and knew how to fight their corner. Also tender-hearted and with a strong moral sense, they spoke, one felt, with the voice of their creator.
Stewart wrote over 50 books during her 40-plus-year career, in genres including romantic suspense, Gothic, fantasy and juvenile literature.
Having come to Stewart’s work decades after their first publication, I’m not sure I understood just how spectacular her books must have seemed at the time until I began reading vintage Gothics and Harlequins from the same period. The heroines of these books would have considered Stewart’s heroines too forward, a bit fast, and altogether too self-assured to be borne. The Gothic and Harlequin heroines of 1950s-1970s often seem buffeted by the world, pushed into arranged marriages and secretarial jobs wearing sensible clothing in subdued colors. Things happen to these heroines — not so the Mary Stewart heroine. She’s either actively pursuing adventure, ala Christy Mansel in The Gabriel Hounds, or the architect of her own fate, like the heroine of The Ivy Tree.
As much as she was responsible for writing a more modern heroine, Stewart hewed more to classic literature than to popular literature in her prose. A stylist whose books never pandered to her audience, she assumed her readers got the references and read between the lines. In her finest books, plot, setting and characters come together like the inner workings of a watch — tightly wound, intricate yet sturdy, each word chosen with precision to propel the mechanism forward.
Without a doubt my favorite Mary Stewart book is The Ivy Tree. You can read my review here, but let me preface that by saying that this book is the essence of Mary Stewart — characters that you wish you knew, an evocative setting that is integral to the story, a plot that seems simple on the surface but becomes more involved as the story unfolds, and prose that is both lush and succinct at once.
In honor of a talent unlike any other, here are three of my favorite Mary Stewart reads:
The Moonspinners was the first Mary Stewart book I read. I read it as a young teenager, maybe 12 or 13, after finding it in the library and recognizing the title from the Disney adaptation of the same name.
While the book is much less shiny-happy than the movie, The Moonspinners was a young girl’s perfect introduction to Mary Stewart and to the suspense genre. Heroine Nicola arranges to meet her cousin on the island of Crete, but when she arrives earlier than Frances, she finds herself involved with a hero in trouble and a mystery to unravel. The mystery was engrossing, to my younger self, and Nicola, who reads even now as very young for a Stewart heroine, was a big improvement over Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. I wanted to be just like her.
I likely didn’t appreciate just how wonderful Stewart’s prose was, then, but here’s an example that makes me swoon as an adult:
…on the darkest night, the maidens take their spindles down to the sea, to wash their wool. And the wool slips from the spindles into the water, and unravels in long ripples of light from the shore to the horizon, and there is the moon again, rising above the sea….Only when all the wool is washed, and wound again into a white ball in the sky, can the moon-spinners start their work once more…
My first Mary Stewart experience as an adult was Nine Coaches Waiting, which I read in college. I was reading Victorian British Literature at the time, and can remember thinking that Nine Coaches Waiting was the modern heir to all those classic Gothics – a seemingly simple governess Gothic with prose every bit as accomplished and evocative as Bronte’s (and infinitely more readable than Wuthering Heights, might I add). I felt sophisticated just reading this book, with the descriptions of Paris and the French countryside, and identified with lines like this:
[Loneliness] was something which was always there… one learns to keep it at bay, there are times when one even enjoys it — but there are also times when a desperate self-sufficiency doesn’t quite suffice, and then the search for the anodyne begins… the radio, the dog, the shampoo, the stockings-to-wash, the tin soldier…
When a book’s first line is “nothing ever happens to me,” you know something big is in the offing.
Within the first few pages of My Brother Michael, a stranger approaches heroine Camilla Haven in a crowded Athens café, hands her the keys to a car, and whispers “a matter of life and death.” On the stranger’s instructions, Camilla ends up traveling to Delphi to meet a Monsieur Simon, only to find Simon Lester, searching for clues to his brother’s death during World War II. But is Simon Lester Monsieur Simon? And what did his brother Michael know?
My Brother Michael is one of Stewart’s more plot-driven novels, and though Camilla may not seem that trailblazing to modern readers, as a wandering divorcee who travels alone with a stranger, she was enough to make her contemporary Gothic and Harlequin heroines clutch their pearls and gasp. And so wryly wise, when she says “I gets to know men quickest by the things they take for granted.”
I’ll sum up with one of my favorite quotes from Mary Stewart, one that describes her books and all good books, for that matter:
The best words in the best order… the same shock of recognition and delight when someone else’s words swam up to meet a thought or name a picture.
P.S. Most of Mary Stewart’s books have never been out of print, or not for long, so they’re easy to find in bookstores and libraries. Many of her books are available in e-book, too.
Recently on Tumblr, I ran across a list of the six styles of love as defined by John Lee, and naturally my mind strayed to romance novels.
As I read through the list, I began to identify each stage with a romance novel, to wit:
a passionate physical and emotional love based on aesthetic enjoyment; stereotype of romantic love
Almost all of Mary Jo Putney’s Fallen Angels historicals fit here; Shattered Rainbows comes to mind for the very passionate, emotional attachment between Lord Michael Kenyon and Catherine Melbourne.
a love that is played as a game or sport; conquest; may have multiple partners at once
The classic example is Edith Layton’s Traditional Regency The Duke’s Wager. Regina becomes the prize in a wager between the Marquis of Bessacarr and the legendary roue the Duke of Torquay. Ludus was alive and well in the Regency period, evidently — the trope of a female as prize in a wager is common in the Traditional Regency, though few have done it so well as Edith Layton.
an affectionate love that slowly develops from friendship, based on similarity
Like Mary Jo Putney and Eros, Carla Kelly writes almost exclusively to the Storge style of love, allowing her heroes and heroines to grow to love one another from a seed of friendship and mutual understanding. One of her finest examples of Storge is her Traditional Regency With This Ring. Lydia and Sam meet when she volunteers at a makeshift military hospital, and develop a close friendship that deepens to love.
love that is driven by the head, not the heart
I was stumped, first, when it came to Pragma, then ashamed that I could not think of any romances that were more pragmatic than romantic. After all, this is a genre that abounds with stories of marriages of convenience; however, when I see Pragma assigned to a style of love, I think more of love that comes from an intellectual connection rather than an hormonal connection.
One of the first romances I thought of as I brainstormed was Laura Kinsale’s historical My Sweet Folly, which begins with correspondence between the two leads, who are separated by continents and years. But the letters between Robert and Folie are too romantic, even at the outset, for this to apply to my somewhat narrow standards.
Two other books, though, did come to mind. The first, My Dearest Enemy, an historical by Connie Brockway, also relies heavily on letters between adventurer Avery Thorne and suffragette Lily Bede. Unlike Robert and Folie, who find themselves romantic and kindred spirits from the start, Avery and Lily’s letters begin as intellectual sparring before growing into a deeper affection.
The other book, Heart in Hiding by Emma Richmond, a Harlequin from 1990 that I recently reviewed, might be more of a Pragma story than even My Dearest Enemy. Corbin and Verity, the hero and heroine, seem barely aware of each other as man and woman at the book’s beginning; only as Verity proves herself resourceful and indispensable, and Corbin reveals himself as more than an irascible destroyer of all things electronic do they begin to develop romantic feelings for each other.
obsessive love; experience great emotional highs and lows; very possessive and often jealous lovers
Pretty much most Gothics published between 1960-1979, and 95% of the Harlequin/Mills & Boon output from 1970-2000.
selfless altruistic love; spiritual
My first thought when linking Agape and romance was another Laura Kinsale, the much-loved Flowers From the Storm, which is the story of Quaker Maddy Timms and Christian Langland, Duke of Jerveaux. Maddy, of course, helps to rehabilitate Christian after a devastating stroke leaves him confined to an asylum — the very definition of Agape, right?
Instead, my thoughts turned almost immediately to another of Laura Kinsale’s books, For My Lady’s Heart. A medieval historical, For My Lady’s Heart has as much in common with Chaucer and Arthurian legend as historical romance — Ruck, the hero, is on what can only be described as a spiritual quest to repay what he sees as a debt of the soul to heroine Melanthe that begins with a would-be saint’s pilgrimage.
While selflessness, altruism and even spirituality are not necessarily the sole property of religion, few blatantly “inspirational” romances are as steeped in spirituality as For My Lady’s Heart. The influence of the church in the late Middle Ages is almost impossible for us as modern readers to comprehend, but Kinsale is one of few medieval romance writers who places the church in its rightful place in this period — it is the framework for the entire book. The church is what brings Ruck to Melanthe, and its teachings and commandments — commandments that carried the weight of law during the Middle Ages — drive much of the book’s plot and almost all of Ruck and Melanthe’s actions.
**WARNING — SPOILERS AHEAD**
The book’s sequel, Shadowheart is also the rare example of true Agape in romance, albeit to less effect than the epic For My Lady’s Heart, which is so steeped in the period that it uses Middle English for all dialogue. Shadowheart does, however, have one of the most affecting climaxes I have ever read in any book — one that hinges on Allegretto’s spiritual salvation.
John Lee’s styles of love were conceived as a “psychology of love,” a way to identify the difference between the ways humans express love and explain why there is, sometimes, a very basic breakdown in relationships resulting from conflicting ways of expressing and feeling love. Using them as a basis for literary criticism may be disingenuous, but it’s a case of the shoe fitting, especially in the case of romance.
Any well-written romance will show the hero and heroine cycling through several of the styles of love as their relationships progress, but most all romance novels seem to rely heavily on one style of love to define the relationship between the two leads. This defining style of love is synonymous with theme — i.e., bodice rippers falling squarely into the Eros style, inspirationals with a Storge theme, or those patently Pragma old-school Harlequins, full of boss/secretary and marriage-of-convenience romances.
Using Lee’s styles of love as a classification system that transcends subgenre just calls to the librarian in me. The styles lend themselves so easily to this use, allowing for description of a book’s tone or theme. We all know, for instance, what the term “Gothic Romance” means, but further classification in terms of the love styles could help the picky reader to weed out the “Mania Gothic Romances.” It’s an imperfect classification system, yes, but an intriguing place to start.
Whistle for the Crows by Dorothy Eden
One of the very best things about e-books is the reissue of out-of-print and hard-to-find paperbacks. Whistle For the Crows, Dorothy Eden’s 1962 contemporary Gothic, is a recent e-book reissue from Open Road Media, an e-book publisher that has brought many genre paperbacks back from obscurity.
Here’s the blurb:
From one of the world’s classic authors of romantic suspense comes the thrilling tale of a young woman caught between the desires of two very different brothers while researching a family’s secret history in an eerie Irish castle
For Cathleen Lamb, traveling to Dublin to record the history of the mystery-shrouded O’Riordan family is the answer to a prayer. Still grieving over the accident that killed her husband and baby daughter, she hopes to lose herself in other people’s lives.
But something sinister is going on at the ancient castle at the edge of the moors … something beyond the scandalous skeletons rattling around the O’Riordans’ closets. The former heir was killed three years earlier in a suspicious fall. The same night, the family matriarch suffered a stroke that left her mute.
Despite the malice that surrounds her, Cathleen is drawn to the brooding, darkly passionate man who is plotting to control the family. But even he may not be able to protect her when the crimes of the past reach into the present to terrorize the living.
Whistle For the Crows will please readers who love this particular style of 1960s-era Gothic featuring a vague, slightly dense heroine, a number of brooding/menacing/disenchanted potential heroes, and mysteries that are not so much mysteries as big misunderstandings. A few of the other boilerplate Gothic elements appear as well, including the dreadfully scary house and the huge family with even bigger secrets. Throw in old stand-bys like mysterious cries in the night, suspicious goings-on in the village and certifiably insane family members, and you’ve got a recipe for a classic mid-century Gothic.
Although Eden’s writing is not as imaginative or evocative as contemporary Gothic grand dame Mary Stewart’s, the modern reader will find it goes down much easier than the stilted, dense prose that plagued so many mid-century Gothics. Eden has a charming voice, and if Whistle For the Crows’ plot is a little overcooked, it did keep me reading — and guessing.
All in all, I give Whistle For the Crows four out of five mysterious cries in the night, and just for fun, threw in three vintage covers in addition to the new one!