Sweet Rocket

Romance Reviews, Author Profiles and More…


2 Comments

Classic Review: The Cockermouth Mail by Dinah Dean

In which Sir Richard and Dorcas appear to be escaping a 1980s music video via the Cockermouth Mail…

Was she a fool to believe in miracles?

Miss Dorcas Minster was penniless and without prospects. She had no choice but to accept a position as governess in Cockermouth, a remote town in the English Lake District.

Resolved to make the best of her bleak future, Dorcas was not surprised when the stage-coach she was travelling in was waylaid by an accident. She and her fellow passengers were forced to seek refuge in a nearby inn. So much did she enjoy the assorted company that she found herself wishing to be stranded forever.

One passenger in particular, the dashing Colonel, Sir Richard Severall, was of special interest to Dorcas. And it seemed as if she was of special interest to him. Fate had delivered her into the hands of love. If only she could be certain Sir Richard returned her affection.

Maybe I suffer from impossible standards, but a distinct “is this all there is?” epiphany is usually the result when I read a romance that reviewers gush about.

With that in mind, I was understandably loath to pick up The Cockermouth Mail. Dinah Dean’s Regency romance, first published in 1982, is touted as one of the best of the classic Traditional Regencies by Regency lovers on message boards and blogs throughout Romancelandia.

When I picked up The Cockermouth Mail, I prepared myself for disappointment. Penniless governess, returning soldier, a convenient stranding in an inn, a mystery involving a highwayman who’s robbing mail coaches — there’s nothing in The Cockermouth Mail I hadn’t seen a hundred times before.

But The Cockermouth Mail is unlike anything else I’ve ever read.

The mail coach is a common Regency trope for creating meet-cute and convenient stranding for the hero and heroine, but I’ve never seen a mail coach employed in quite the way Dean does in The Cockermouth Mail. She uses the peculiar etiquette, the protocol and the actual operation of the mail coach as a hub, with the characters and plot as the spokes on the wheel. No character in the book, and very few of the plot points do not, in some way, come back to the mail coach.

It’s the mail coach signals how far Dorcas has fallen in the world; she’s forced to find and pay for her own transportation to her new position, which leaves her purse light and her virtue in question. Other travelers on her journey notice, and occasionally judge her by her unchaperoned appearance on such a questionable conveyance.

It’s the mail coach that brings her together with Richard, a landed and wealthy soldier who’s been invalided out of service following the Peninsular Campaign. It’s the continual delays in the journey, due to weather, that allow Richard to realize that Dorcas is unable to pay for a meal and thus learn the reasons for her destitution.

It’s the mail coach that strands them at an inn where the travelers, forced to spend Christmas in a strange town, celebrate as best they can, a particularly bittersweet happenstance for Dorcas, who knows she’s enjoying a last bit of freedom for the duration. The roads to Cockermouth are impassable for most of the winter, see, it will be spring before another mail coach returns.

You’d be forgiven if you reach this point of The Cockermouth Mail and think, as I did, “this is all? Yes, the mail coach is cute, but this surely this leads to nothing more than the usual shotgun wedding following an unavoidable indiscretion.”

Well, yes and no. There were several stages in the book (see what I did there?) where I fully expected Richard to act accordingly and offer for Dorcas’ hand. You even see him on the verge a time or two, but there are a few other tropes to get out of the way first.

All the most gifted authors in a genre as convention-bound as the Traditional Regency find a way to use familiar constructions as building blocks. Dean does that brilliantly, and the best example is Richard’s hidebound hero-with-a-limp-or-other-imperfection inferiority complex. You keep waiting for it, but it never appears until the mail coach overturns during a sudden snow storm. Richard cannot travel on foot with the rest of the group. Dorcas, who is already beginning to recognize her feelings for Richard, stays behind with him to await help. The storm intensifies, Richard’s disability renders him helpless, and the consequences are nearly fatal for both he and Dorcas. It makes for reading that’s harrowing and touching by turns, and afterward, one can easily understand Richard’s resistance to his growing affection for Dorcas.

But as with all the best romances, it’s the resistance that’s the best part. Richard and Dorcas are both lovely, and each encounter between them is imbued with burgeoning awareness and real affinity. All the while, Dean is deftly building toward a baited-breath climax and an HEA — including one of the few epilogues I can say truly adds to the story — that these two characters deserve.

The Cockermouth Mail could have easily become Dorcas and Richard’s Tale of Woe but it never does. The darker themes of the book are leavened by humor at almost every turn, much of it surrounding that infamous mail coach. It’s the best Traditional Regency I’ve read in a long time, and I can’t recommend it enough. I give The Cockermouth Mail, book and coach route, five horses that do not bite or kick at the traces. (Richard and Dorcas get five hot brandy toddies and five snuggly blankets!)

 


Leave a comment

Review: Gentle Deception by Frances Roding

Nothing screams romance like turtleneck sweaters, white sneakers and coffee cups…

How could she prove they were wrong?

Rosy Seaton, alone in the world, was only too delighted to become acquainted with her distant Cousin Elliott and his wife, Bea.

Unfortunately, Bea’s younger brother and sister misinterpreted Rosy’s newfound happiness and thought she was setting her cap at Elliott.

To convince them it wasn’t true, Rosy had to find herself a man–and Callum Blake was just what she needed. He was perfectly prepared to be her pretend lover–but what if it suddenly became reality?

The world of the 1950s-1960s Mills & Boon is a precarious one, densely populated by orphaned waifs who’ve been raised by elderly aunts in the mode of the late-Victorian gentlewoman, then left to the mercy of the world when these aunts conveniently die, leaving them estates, or at the very least homes or small incomes. Distant relatives who are unearthed are cold or prone to misunderstandings, leaving these delicate flowers battered by the winds of cruel fortune until some random man appears, in desperate need of a barely-trained secretary or nanny, and offering in tandem a pretend engagement or marriage of convenience. These well-meaning and evasive men whisk our blooms away to the wide world, where painted hussies known as Evil Other Women wait with sharp lacquered talons to snatch away the mysterious male that represents our flowers’ only chance at happiness. But never fear, pining hearts! Goodness, barefaced and sensibly-shod, always prevails!

One can easily be forgiven if, in the midst of reading the first few pages of Gentle Deception, one is compelled to flip back to the copyright page to double-check the date of publication. One can be likewise forgiven for assuming that the first copyright of 1989 is a typo; surely a book with as sheltered and precious a heroine as Rosy cannot have been written post-1970.

Keep going, dear reader. Gentle Deception is either the most disingenuous send-up of vintage Mills & Boon romances ever printed, or an honest-to-goodness reframing of all the elements that made the vintage Mills & Boon romances of the 1950s-1960s so endearingly bizarre.

Things roll along in the patented vintage M&B formula for the first few chapters. Poor Rosy clings to her newly-discovered cousin and his family so tightly that it’s decided that nothing will do but to send her to Oxford with her university student cousin-in-law so that she can nab a man of her own. Within hours of her arrival, she is dragged shuffling-feet to a university to-do where she happens upon poor Callum, whom she is naturally drawn to because he’s clearly more pitiable than even Rosy.

For Callum, you see, has just returned from a jaunt to Ethiopia, where he was, in a twist that can only happen in romance, shot in the leg then subjected to Lassa fever, all in the name of economics research. Rosy quite naturally takes advantage of a captive audience (Callum is in a wheelchair, poor sod) to confess that she’s been brought to Oxford to find a man. After that “extremely intriguing statement,” Callum, in the time-honored M&B tradition, offers her a job as his secretary.

Of course he does. Because, in that other hallowed M&B tradition, Rosy is beautiful oblivious perfection. Lovely face, silky-straight blonde hair (a prerequisite, it would seem, for a certain type of untouched M&B heroine), a slim, fetching figure, and a charming manner made all the more so for Rosy’s complete innocence of her own attractions. It’s a straight shoot to Callum’s volunteering to not only employ her, but to pose as her fiance.

If one experiences a little nausea from the overload of spun-sugar sweetness here, one is advised again to keep going, for this is where the M&B world begins to shift. In Callum we soon discover that unicorn of vintage M&B romance, a beta male. Not only is he professional and nice, he is interesting. Not just interestingly pale due to his infirmities, though he is that, too, and not just interestingly mysterious, as he must be in order to appear in a vintage M&B romance, but interesting. He and Rosy have entire conversations completely devoid of huffs, telling silences or evasive non-answers, he explains the broader scope of economics in a Third World country in a way that makes even readers sit up and take notice, and he’s also dryly funny and a good cook.

Rosy begins to fall in love before she knows what hit her, and it’s adorable. I contend that the secret to a successful romance is in the small and telling details, and when Rosy begins to notice Callum’s lovely eyes instead of his glasses, his wrists, his skin, you know she’s a goner. When she begins to feel real tenderness for him rather than just sisterly compassion, it’s a lovely scene (and you’ll know it when you see it).

In falling in love, if unconsciously, Rosy becomes more than a hothouse flower. Much to the reader’s amusement, for by this time it is apparent that Callum is attracted to Rosy even if she can see him as no more than a puny if brilliant professor, Rosy somehow arrives at the conclusion that Callum has taken some vow of celibacy. Such monkishness must absolve him of any designs on her person, so she confesses that she has never had a lover because, in a twist I think I have never seen in a M&B or Harlequin, her university boyfriend was completely turned-off by her lack of sexual experience. (Where, one wonders, were all those Anne Mather alpha-males-in-training, chomping at the bit to deflower a young innocent and ruin her for all other men for all time?) Henceforth, she cannot be anything but an unattractive pariah who will never find love.

One does not see that one coming, but one knows where an opening like that must lead. Gentle Deception indeed — our sweet, clean M&B romance of yesteryear has just landed with a thud into the waning 20th Century, complete with vague STD references, dusky aureoles and all. Yes, dear reader, Rosy and Callum are about to romp in the hay.

But in keeping with the Gentle Deception‘s sly bait-and-switch, Rosy’s primrose path is littered with both tenderness and humor. Watching her attribute Callum’s growing adoration as nothing more than in keeping with their pretend relationship and wildly misinterpret his sexual attraction to her is good for laughs (if of the muted variety), and only goes to reinforce her naivete, which is key to the book’s conflict, gentle though that conflict may be.

Unfortunately, this is the point where the book stumbles. Perhaps it is because of the bait-and-switch, or the humor and sweetness that have been the book’s prevailing tone, but the chapter-long love scene is a huge disappointment. It is jarringly cliche, seemingly substituted out of another book; the purple prose flows hot and heavy, Rosy reverts to type, and Callum is suddenly possessed by the ghost of a million other M&B/Harlequin heroes.

Skip Chapter Nine, dear reader. One misses nothing for doing so, and without Chapter Nine, Gentle Deception truly shines.

There is no hope for the reader that does not fall a little in love with Callum right along with Rosy, whose falling is so tactile, all accidental touches and lingering looks, that one feels it. Even the aftermath of that wretched love scene makes sense for these two characters who, though sensible and shy, fell hard and fast.  In the spirit of all the successful vintage M&B romances that midwifed Gentle Deception, the romance transcends the form; despite the ridiculous machinations and tropes that bring Callum and Rosy together, their romance is inevitable, as is their HEA. 

I give Gentle Deception 4 broderie anglaise nighties. Callum, Chapter Nine notwithstanding, gets 5 sensible wristwatches for his handsome wrist. 

And now for the fun part: Frances Roding was one of the many, many pseudonyms employed by Penny Jordan. To say I was shocked to learn that fact is an understatement; I have never been able to finish a Penny Jordan M&B/Harlequin, mostly because of her purple prose. However, the plot thickens — another of Penny Jordan’s pseudonyms was Caroline Courtney, which she used for Regency romances. That made perfect sense, as so much of Gentle Deception seems like a Regency/Vintage M&B mash-up, blurb included, what with that strange reference to Rosy “setting her cap” for her cousin.


Leave a comment

The Reading Challenge Challenge

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward gearing up for a mid-century reading challenge. Photo by Gordon Parks, Getty Images.

I do not need a reading challenge to encourage me to read books. My problem is the opposite — I read so much that dust bunnies become dust rabbits and beget dust bunnies of their own, so much that three days out of five, I can’t leave home without a generous helping of Visine for my weary eyes.

Yet I am intrigued by the idea of reading challenges, if only for my romance reading, because I too often read in the same genres and tropes over and over; my diet of vintage Gothics, antique Harlequins and Traditional Regencies has yet to become stale, but I sometimes wonder what I am missing by not broadening my reading horizons.

Now the reading challenge itself has fallen victim to a trope of my own: indecision. Buy a car, buy a house — I can make major decisions in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Ask me to choose a restaurant, a purse, a new shampoo or a reading challenge, and you’d think the fate of the world lay in the balance.

So here are a few of the 2015 reading challenges I’ve found as I consider this momentous decision. The challenges themselves are endlessly fascinating to me, though I suspect that if I embark on a reading challenge at all, it will be some mish-mash of all these.

Wish me luck and hope that I manage to settle on one before the cows come home in 2016….

15 Flavors: Submitted by PWM in MI to All About Romances’s “The “Official” Fabulous Fifteen Reading Challenge” Discussion Board:

PWM’s reading challenge is based upon the AAR Special Title Listings updated in 2014.

1) Green Romances- Read a romance where the characters care about the environment and are actively engaged in protecting it. (i.e.: conservationists, park rangers, birdwatchers, biologists, architects, scientists, engineers, and green activists.
2) Fairy Tale Romances- Read a romance based the plot of well-known fairy tale.
3) Point of View – Read a novel told primarily through the eye of one narrator, including first-person point of view, romantic diary fiction, or a romance from the male point of view.
4) Rakes & Rogues-Read a romance where the hero is a known rake, a ladies’ man, a bon vivant and possibly a libertine. Or read a romance where the hero is rogue, a scoundrel, a man considered dangerous (perhaps he is a smuggler or is thought to have murdered his first wife), and a man who may be acting outside the law.
5) Adventure Romances-For this list, think Romancing the Stone: Read a romance where love and adventure all mixed up together.
6) Friends in Romance-Read a romance not only focuses on a love story, but also the strong ties of friendship that exist between people. This may take the form of a friendship that leads to romance, or a romance of which a deep friendship is an essential part. It may take the form of strong non-romantic ties to a person of the same sex, or the form of a platonic friendship between a woman and a man.
7) Royalty-Read a romance which includes a lead or integral secondary character who is either real or fictional royalty, meaning them (or their close relatives) rules a state.
Cool Secondary Romances-Read a book that has a strong romance between secondary characters.
9) Held Captive- Read a romance where the heroes and heroines in these books hold each other captive with more than the bonds of love.
10) Amnesia…Or Not?-Read a romance where a character suffers or appears to be suffering from amnesia.
11) Spies, P.I.’s, & Warriors – Read a romance where the hero or heroine is a spy, P.I.’, warrior, cop, or in the armed forces.
12) Imprisoned!-Read a romance that have heroes and heroines who, guilty or innocent, were convicted of a crime or taken prisoner and so spent time imprisoned or exiled. Character my also currently be incarcerated.
13) Best Enemies-Read a romance where the hero and heroine loathe each other.
14) The Limelight-Read a romance featuring heroes or heroines who are in the performing or creative arts, such as actors, singers, artists, best-selling novelists, and dancers.
15) Two-Hanky Reads-Read a romance that have been rumored to make the reader cry, not just a tear or two, but those that tend to be cathartic and intense.
16) War- Read a romance where war is an important factor in the plot. Whether the characters are in battle, on the home front, living in occupied territory, or reliving the war in PTSD, their lives have been permanently altered by the experience of war.
17) Cross-Dressing & In Disguise-Read a romance involving lead characters in disguise, women who dress as men, men who dress as women, and lead characters who ugly themselves up to be unappealing to prospective mates.
18) Perfect First Spouses-Read a romance with a hero or heroine who had “perfect” first relationships. Those relationships may have been in actuality wonderful or merely perceived as wonderful by the new love interest.
19) Young Adult Fiction-Read a y/a novel with strong romantic elements.
20) Pirates, Sheiks & Vikings-Read a romances featuring Pirates, Vikings, and Sheiks.

PWM’s challenge list features several tropes/characters/plots that I tend to avoid (pirates, sheiks, Vikings, perfect first spouses, amnesia). It’s also so very very easy — I can just use the challenge and the AAR Special Title Listings to cross-reference and choose books from time periods/genres I don’t usually tackle. Too easy, probably. 

 

15 Winners: Submitted by Karat to All About Romances’s “The “Official” Fabulous Fifteen Reading Challenge” Discussion Board:

Says Karat: “Since the first AAR Annual Reader Poll in 1997, a total of 15 authors have won the Best Romance/Favorite Romance of the Year award. Read 10, 12 or 15 books written by these authors, or fitting the following criteria:”

1. Suzanne Brockmann
Winner books: Over the Edge (2002*), Out of Control (2003) and Gone Too Far (2004)
Read a book where the hero or heroine is a SEAL / special ops / FBI agent / security specialist, or where there is a secondary romance. Or read a book that finishes a story arc that started in previous books in a series. Or read a romantic suspense.

2. Loretta Chase
Winner books: Mr. Impossible (2006) and Last Night’s Scandal (2011)
Read a book set in Africa or the Middle East, or where the h/h is a scholar, or where the h/h met as children.

3. Joanna Bourne
Winner books: The Spymaster’s Lady (2009) and The Black Hawk (2012)
Read a book set in France, or where the h/h is French, or where the h/h is a spy. Or read a book were the h/h are reunited after some time apart.

4. Mary Jo Putney
Winner book: Shattered Rainbows (1997)
Read a book set during or right after a war, or a book where the h/h is in the military, or where the h/h is injured or ill.

5. Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Winner book: Nobody’s Baby But Mine (1998)
Read a book where the heroine is or gets pregnant, or where the hero and heroine have a child together. Or read a book where the h/h is an athlete or a scientist.

6. Nora Roberts
Winner book: Sea Swept (1999)
Read a book where the h/h is a boat racer, ship captain or is in the Navy. Or read a book where the h/h is a social worker. Or read a book where the h/h suddenly becomes responsible for a child.

7. Robin Schone
Winner book: The Lady’s Tutor (2000)
Read a book where the h/h is a tutor, a teacher, a professor, etc. Or where the h/h speaks one other language besides English, or the h/h was raised in a foreign country.

8. Adele Ashworth
Winner book: Winter Garden (2001)
Read a book set in a coastal town, or a book whose title has the words “winter”, “summer”, “autumn”, or “spring” in the title

9. Jennifer Crusie
Winner book: Bet Me (2005)
Read a book where there is a bet or a dare involved. Or read a romantic comedy.

10. J.R. Ward
Winner book: Lover Awakened (2007)
Read a book with a tortured hero, or a book where the h/h is imprisoned, or the h/h has a twin. Or read a Paranormal book.

11. Jo Goodman
Winner book: If His Kiss Is Wicked (2008**)
Read a book where the h/h is an investigator, or where the h/h is a poor relative, or has to live with an uncle, aunt, cousin, etc. Or read a book where the h/h has amnesia.

12. Elizabeth Hoyt
Winner book: The Serpent Prince (2008**)
Read a book where someone is seeking revenge, where the h/h is a prince/princess, or any other member of the royalty. Or read a book where the chapters have small prefaces (famous literary quotes, fictional journal excerpts, fairy tales, etc)

13. Jennifer Ashley
Winner book: The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie (2010)
Read a book where the h/h is considered mad, or a book that is part of a series where each book is about a different family member. Or read a book by an author who writes under multiple pen names.

14. Julie Anne Long
Winner book: A Notorious Countess Confesses (2013)
Read a book where the h/h is a member of the church, or where the h/h is a noble.

15. Sherry Thomas
Winner book: The Luckiest Lady in London (2014)
Read a book where the h/h has to marry for money, or the h/h is viewed by society as the ideal gentleman or a perfect lady. Or read a book where the h/h is interested in astronomy.

I find Karat’s challenge interesting, though I would probably go by the alternatives rather than the winning authors/books (yes, I know that I’m supposed to expand my horizons, but I have read a number of the winning books, and of them, only Mary Jo Putney’s Shattered Rainbows would come near to an award with me). 

2015 Monthly Keyword Challenge By Bookmark to Blog

Kim at Bookmark to Blog has several interesting challenges, one of which is the Monthly Keyword Challenge

JAN- Bird, Girl, Ever, Silence, Bad, Truth, End 
FEB- Key, Water, Lie, Chase, Heir, Once 
MAR- Kind, Face, Power, City, Blue, Night, To 
APR- Dream, Prince, Long, Wind, Rose, The, Rock 
MAY- Ash, Road, Thief, Bend, In, Far 
JUN- My, Together, Whisper, Win, Soul, Sleep
JUL- Sun, Unto, Energy, Fate, High, Look
AUG- Fall, Boy, Glass, Heart, Lost, Now
SEP- Color, Touch, Life, Day, How, Sweet
OCT- Ghost, Home, Beach, Away, Test, Number
NOV- Rise, Holiday, And, Little, Call, Dark
DEC- Space, Mirror, Over, Flower, Trap, Cold

According Kim’s instructions, the title you choose does not have to be exact, but can be a variation on one of the keywords.

I would die of dithering. For a foot-dragger like myself, attempting a “keyword challenge” would result in hours spent trawling Amazon and Goodreads for the keywords to no discernible result. 

I’m also little skeptical of this challenge for romance reading, simply because I find that like covers, book titles often have little to do with the books themselves where romance novels are concerned. 

2015 Monthly Motif Challenge By Bookmark to Blog:

Another of Kim’s challenges, the Monthly Motif Challenge: 

JAN Book to Movie or Audio (A book with a movie or audio book version.)
FEB– Award Winner
MAR–  Genre Jumble (A book in a genre that you’ve never tried or are unfamiliar with.) 
APRMystery, Murder, and Mayhem
MAYLibrary Love (A book chosen from your local library’s displays — I love this one, naturally.)
JUN–  Take A Trip (A book set in a different country different or by an author from another country.)
JULStanding Up (A book in which the main character stands up for themselves, stands up against an enemy, or stands up for something they believe in.)
AUG– Alternate Reality (A book set in the future, on another planet/dimension. Dystopian titles also apply.)
SEPFurry Friends (A book with an animal as an important character.)
OCTGoblins, and Ghost, and Ghouls, Oh My!
NOV– An Oldie but a Goodie (A book published prior to or set prior to 2000.)
DEC– That’s a Wrap (Kim’s recommendation is to finish a series or read the next book in an series you never finished; I’d probably just read one of the rare books I did not finish…)
Kim recommends combining the Monthly Motif Challenge with the Keyword Challenge. 

 

PopSugar’s 2015 Reading Challenge:

I don’t know that I have ever dipped my toe into PopSugar, but this infographic showed up in my Tumblr feed, and i thought it was worth including:

 

I think this list could easily be adapted to romance reading, especially if you explode the idea of romance to encompass more than just the romance genre. There are so many “romances” like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Taming of the Shrew that we should have read in school but didn’t, many fictional or non-fictional memoirs that are romantic, and plenty of banned romance novels to choose from. There are even a few Pulitzer’s that feature strong romances; Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (well, that might be a bromance, but what the hell) and The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty come to mind.

So I’m off to ponder the pros and cons of reading challenges. I will likely bury myself in another Mary Burchell or Jane Donnelly M&B while I’m considering it ;)

 

 


3 Comments

Review: Nocturne For a Widow by Amanda DeWees

Nocturne-for-a-Widow-Ebook

First off, how much do you love that cover for Nocturne For a Widow? I love the colors, the composition, and most of all that silhouette.

That gorgeous cover is not all  Nocturne For a Widow has to recommend it. If you missed my synopsis when Sweet Rocket did the cover reveal, here’s a taste of what you can expect inside:

Widowed on her wedding night!

Sybil Ingram is at a crossroads. Once she was the toast of the London stage, but by 1873 her draw isn’t what it used to be, and her theater troupe is foundering. When her trusted mentor asks her to take the blame for his financial misdeeds, Sybil sees no choice but to retire from the life she loves and move to America to marry New York City hotel magnate Alcott Lammle. But her path to happiness is cut short when Lammle dies suddenly–and in financial ruin.

Widowed, nearly penniless, and unable to return to England, the determined diva sets out to stake a claim on Brooke House, an eccentric Gothic revival manor in the wilds of the Hudson River Valley. She soon finds, however, that a ghostly presence wants her gone. Even worse, her claim is challenged by the most insolent, temperamental, maddeningly gorgeous man she’s ever met: Roderick Brooke, a once-famous former violinist whose career ended in a dark scandal.

Soon it’s a battle of wills as Sybil matches wits–and trades barbs–with Roderick, finding herself increasingly drawn to him despite her growing suspicion that there is a connection between him and the entity that haunts Brooke House. But an even greater threat arises in the form of the mysterious, powerful queen of local society, Mrs. Lavinia Dove. For reasons that Sybil can’t imagine, Mrs. Dove is determined to oust Sybil from her sphere . . . and the lengths to which she will go are chilling indeed.

By turns mysterious and moving, sparkling and spooky, Nocturne for a Widow follows a spirited heroine through adventures in life, love, and death. From the colorful theatrical world of late-Victorian London to the American wilderness, Sybil’s travels will test her mettle–and her heart.

As I was reading Nocturne For a Widow, two authors’ works kept coming to mind: Barbara Michaels’ historical Gothics, and Deanna Raybourne’s Lady Julia Gray mysteries. It’s hard to heap higher praise on an author than to compare her to either of those authors, both of whom weave important but too-often overlooked elements into their spooky tales — wit and humor. It’s a hard balance to strike, but like Raybourne and Michaels, Amanda DeWees does it wonderfully.

If you’ve found Gothic romances too cobwebby and suffocating, then DeWees’ books, especially Nocturne For a Widow, will disabuse you of those notions. A sprinkling of cheeky wit was but one of the standout features of DeWees’ Gothic historical debut, Sea of Secrets and her follow-up Gothic With This Curse  and with Nocturne For a Widow, she brings that delicious humor to the forefront, creating characters and a plot that balance classic Gothic suspense and lighthearted humor so deftly that she nearly creates an entirely new genre — the cozy Gothic romance.

We Gothic lovers are unused to heroines who are not the overlooked governess, the plain-but-bright orphan, or the tragic beauty, which is why Sybil Ingram is such a revelation. Beautiful, vivacious and ever-so-funny, Sybil makes the perfect foil for each and every pathos-laden situation DeWees throws her way, from marrying for money only to find herself widowed immediately to arriving at a desolate and clearly disturbed estate to dealing with unhinged would-be spiritualists. She’s never daunted, never cowers, and if Sybil blunders into that proverbial dark at the top of the stairs more than once, it’s never for being too clueless to know better. Our Sybil’s just that fearless and self-assured, two few-and-far-between qualities in the Gothic heroine.

It spoils nothing to reveal that Sybil goes to Brooke House expecting a pitifully neglected young stepson to go with the forgotten estate, only to find that her stepson is fully grown and anything but pitiful. That’s where our hero, Roderick makes his stomping, bellowing and unforgettable entrance. No Gothic romance is complete without a haunted hero, and Roderick Brooke is one you’ll remember long after you’ve put Nocturne down. Roderick is, in fact, where the Barbara Michaels connection comes to the fore; if you loved Michaels’ Master of Blacktower and its blustering, howling and yet endearingly vulnerable hero, Gavin Hamilton, then Roderick Brooke is just the hero for you. His and Sybil’s interactions crackle with chemistry, and theirs is a happy ending that you hope is just the beginning.

And is it just a beginning? If you paid close attention to Nocturne’s gorgeous cover, you couldn’t have missed “Sybil Ingram: Book One” at the very top. It’s my dearest hope that this is but our first adventure with Sybil and Roderick, and that we can look forward to more of their fabulous chemistry together to come.

I give Nocturne For a Widow five suitcases that just won’t stay where you leave them. I know you’ll just love it.

Nocturne-for-a-Widow-Ebook

Nocturne For a Widow by Amanda DeWees

Amazon Digital Services, Inc.: 2014

Available in ebook and paperback at Amazon

Looking for something to read when you finish Nocturne For a Widow? Try these, precious:

With This Curse by Amanda DeWees

A Bed of Thorns and Roses by Sondra Allen Carr


2 Comments

Ringing in the New Year, Randomly

Gratuitous vintage Andy Virgil illustration, just because I can.

Happy New Year already, guys and dolls! I hope all your holidays were spectacular, and that your new year has gotten off to a wonderful start. Sweet Rocket is getting off to a wonderful, if belated start; here are a few newsy-type things I think you’ll enjoy:

Friends + Madeline Baker = Love

Late to the party as always, I’m just now getting back to my blogging chores. So guess what greeted me when I opened my dashboard? Sweet Rocket exploded last week. All without my knowledge.

The reason was, as it often is, totally random: over at BuzzFeed, one Julia Pugachevsky created an, um, interesting quiz about which Friends character one should hook up with.  Said quiz included a link to an image in one of my all-time favorite Sweet Rocket posts, Hideous Romance Novel Covers, the Madeline Baker Edition.  No, that makes no sense to me, but then I don’t ever remember watching Friends (before you toilet paper my house, I’m not a TV watcher, but I did love Seinfeld). Do go over and have a look and help me to understand how Madeline Baker and Friends are related. In the meantime, if a Friends quiz means a wider audience for the understated glory of a Madeline Baker romance novel cover, then carry on, BuzzFeed, carry on!

Open Library Is Exploding, Too — With Vintage Romances!

If you, like me, find that most of your romance reading is of the yellowed and crumbly variety, you’ll swoon when I drop this bomb on you: Open Library seems to be adding more vintage romance and vintage Gothic romance novels every flipping day!  Seriously. I eliminated about 5o percent of the titles on my Amazon Wish List while waiting to exchange two frozen legs of lamb and a huge bag of clean laundry for a vintage Pioneer hi-fi receiver (thank you, Little Brother — when the receiver’s hooked up, you’ll be the first to be blasted with “Jerusalem” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer at 3:00 a.m. Wait for it).

An Assortment of New Links in the Blogroll Awaits You!

Speaking of yellowed and crumbly, I finally got around to updating my dusty Blogroll. I’m criminally lazy sometimes, really. I added a slew of new blogs and websites I thought Sweet Rocket readers might be interested in, but to make things even easier for you, here’s a rundown, in no particular order:

  • Sweet Rocket on Tumblr: Shameless self-promotion, yes, but for your own good, promise. The Sweet Rocket Tumblr is where most of my romance ephemera ends up now, so if you Tumbl, do follow me there. There are a billionty bizarre romance novel covers, strange love letters, weird love songs and other romantic oddities for your enjoyment.
  • Miss Bates Reads Romance: There is something infinitely pleasing about finding another person who loves to read what you love to read, and it’s pleasure ten-fold when that person writes about the books, and writes about them so well. Only a curmudgeon wouldn’t love Miss Bates’ reviews.
  • Eight Ladies Writing:  Reading about writers and writing makes one a better reader. The ladies at Eight Ladies Writing will inspire you if you aspire to write romance, or if you just love to read romance and enjoy a window into the creation of romance novels.
  • The Regency Redingote: My love for all things Regency is well-documented; reading The Regency Redingote makes reading the Regency a richer experience. So much Regency-era history and ephemera, sigh… I can waste hours on this blog.
  • Book’d Out: Shelley Rae (I hope I got the name right) at Book’d Out reads a dizzying array of books. She’s an Australian book blogger, and I like seeing what readers around the world are reading.
  • Shallowreader: Shallowreader is a very special romance reader: a librarian! Another Australian blogger, Shallowreader reads and writes about more than just romance. I enjoy her insights into reading as a librarian and her reviews.
  • SB James, Doing the Write Thing: Again, I love reading writers on writing, and SB James writes from a perspective that romance readers, especially, can appreciate: that of a self-published writer.
  • A Writer Afoot: Barbara Samuel (aka Ruth Wind) is one of my all-time favorite writers of Harlequin/Silhouette titles, and I also love her historicals and single-title romances. Her writer’s blog is inspirational and aspirational.
  • Amanda DeWees: Maybe I fibbed when I said there was no certain order to this list. I added Amanda DeWees’ site because it’s gorgeous, and for another reason you’ll have to read on to discover…

Upcoming Reviews!

I am making myself accountable to you, dear readers, this year: if I promise you I am going to review more books, I hope some of you will send me nasty messages if I fail to do so. I’ve got a backlog of vintage Harlequin, historical, and Gothic romances I need to work through, but I’m going to start by reviewing Amanda DeWees’ Nocturne For a Widow, which I posted a teaser for back in the good old days of 2014. Look for that review this week. As for the rest, I entreat you: don’t let me be lazy.

Happy 2015!


2 Comments

Review: Margot Early’s “The Keeper”

Here’s a bizarre cover for you: who hangs out on a rock over raging rapids in a bikini? 

I love it when I come across a book I’ve loved and lost, figuratively or literally. Miss Bates’ recent review of Margot Early’s Mr. Family  sent me in search of one I had nearly forgotten.

I knew I had read a couple of Early’s books, and in some cobwebby corner of my mind, I associated her with a book I’d read in college, one that I had always meant to track down. Miss Bates’ post jogged my memory, but it still took some sleuthing to match a title with the Early book I sought, which turned out to be The Keeper.

Before you go any further if you are someone who detests spoilers, please stop reading. There is no way I can write about The Keeper without revealing a key part of the plot that is shrouded in mystery for most of the book.

That disclaimer out of the way, here is the book’s synopsis:

keeper. n. 1. one who protects, guides, cares for 2. person or object worth keeping 3. a “hole” in a river rapid 4. a romance novel the reader’s going to put on her “keeper” shelf!

Zachary Key married Grace Sutter because he loved her–and because he needed a Green Card. That devastated Grace. When she returned to Moab, Utah, to take over her father’s Colorado River outfitting company, the marriage was effectively over.

Now, more than a year later, Zac reenters her life. And Grace discovers that something disturbing happened to him after she left–something he doesn’t completely remember. She also discovers how deeply they still love each other ….

Does their marriage stand a chance? Is Zac a keeper–or does he need one?

After you’ve read this book in its entirety, that last sentence will strike you as incredibly insensitive.

To expand upon that synopsis, Grace and Zac meet in New York City, where they are coworkers, Grace being a sous chef (maybe — I’m a little hazy there) and Zac a waiter looking for acting jobs. They have a whirlwind courtship and marry. Zac’s behavior starts to subtly change, and when Grace’s father becomes ill and she must return to Utah, Zac does a disappearing act. In light of their hasty marriage to aid his immigration status, Grace assumes he only married her for the green card and writes him off, heartbroken.

In the year between their separation and their reunion, Zac’s career has taken off. When he shows up in Utah to answer the divorce papers Grace has filed —  and to shoot a movie —  it’s clear that these two have unfinished business. But he won’t tell her what precipitated his disappearance, and Grace is left to find out the hard way that Zac is suffering from mental illness.

When I read The Keeper in the early 2000s, it was as a selection on a list of popular fiction titles for an assignment in a social work class. The professor had chosen these books for their depictions of mental illness and its treatment, either realistically or unrealistically. I claimed The Keeper because, as a romance novel, I assumed it would be a short, easy read, thus allowing me to quickly return to my regular schedule of hell-raising, and because I assumed I could trash it for being unrealistic.

On the first count, I was right. For college reading, The Keeper was a relatively light read (though for romance, it’s heavy going). But on the second count — realistic/unrealistic portrayal of mental illness?

As best I remember the assignment was to respond to questions about the book’s portrayal of mental illness. Here’s that assignment, paraphrased and simplified:

1. Are the symptoms of the mental illness depicted realistically?

Zac has two acute psychotic episodes in The Keeper. The first begins just as Grace is leaving for Utah, and the signs — fixation on his immigration status, paranoia — are subtle enough that it’s easy to see how she misconstrued them. The second happens more than halfway through the book. The reader, and Grace, to an extent, see that something is coming, but the circumstances — Zac is a Method actor filming a movie under grueling conditions — have allowed Zac to mask the problem until a harrowing river rapids shoot triggers a psychotic break. It’s harrowing to read, in parts; reading from Zac’s perspective during his breaks is chilling, and Grace’s helplessness is almost as affecting.

2. Is the treatment depicted realistically?

I have read several romance novels where mental illness is portrayed, and I have to say The Keeper is the only one where the hero or heroine isn’t cured by love alone. Early pulls no punches in her spot-on depiction of Zac’s treatment. Zac is forcibly restrained and medicated. He refuses treatment, and is hospitalized under a court-ordered 72-hour psych hold, some of which he spends in a padded room. He’s not magically cured, either; his career depends upon his ability to emote, and Zac’s struggle to overcome both the psychotic break and the slurred speech and flat affect that result from the medications he takes as part of his treatment are deftly-handled.

That being said, the particulars of Zac’s problem are a little hazy. Early never conclusively identifies Zac’s diagnosis, and that may be because The Keeper is, in the end, a Harlequin romance novel, and therefore requires both a happy ending and a specific page count. Heavy diagnoses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder would throw a definite shadow over Zac and Grace’s HEA, and they’d also need more exposition than even a Superromance could provide. A qualified happy ending is doable, but I feel that the book would probably have worked better as a single title, where the fallout from Zac’s illness could be better explored.

Where Early excels is in showing the shame, the secrecy and the confusion that go hand-in-hand with mental illness. Zac refuses to seek treatment in New York, even when it becomes clear even to him that something is wrong, because he fears that the stigma of mental illness will result in his being deported. He is ashamed to reveal his condition to Grace, and carries a copy of the diagnostic manual for mental illness with him to Utah, fixating on his symptoms all the while he’s telling himself that he’s okay. Some of the contributing factors to his mental illness are explored, and his career choice in light of his diagnosis is touched upon. He and Grace both struggle with anger and confusion about his condition and the impact it has on their future.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the book is an angsty, depressing read. The Keeper is as effective as a romance as it is in its depiction of Zac and Grace’s struggles. Romance, to me, is always in the little things that couples share — favorite songs, gifts, rituals they create — and Early does an outstanding job of creating a tangible bond between Zac and Grace that is strong enough to overcome the obstacles they face.

I’m so glad that serendipity — and Miss Bates — brought The Keeper to my attention again. I’ll probably Amazon this, and highly recommend anyone who’s interested in this book to do the same. It’s well worth hunting down. If you can’t find a copy, read it on Open Library. I found the book there and skimmed it again for this post.

I should also add that in unearthing this book, I discovered that there is a sequel, the story of Grace’s sister Day and their coworker Nick, both of whom make appearances in The Keeper. That one’s called Nick’s Kind of WomanThat’s a singularly dumb title, but I’ll probably check it out, anyway.

The Keeper gets 5 love coupons. Zac and Grace both get 5 love coupons, too. 


Leave a comment

A Real-Life Pilgrim Romance… Maybe?

An engraving from Longfellow’s “The Courtship of Miles Standish.”

Happy Thanksgiving, sweety darlings!

So in my search for Thanksgiving-themed romances for the Sweet Rocket Tumblr, I ran across a Pilgrim romance I’d completely forgotten: The Courtship of Miles Standish.

I’m hardly the only one who has forgotten The Courtship of Miles Standish; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic 1858 poem about friendship and unrequited love in Plymouth Colony is relegated now to the realms of high school American literature textbooks and scholars of American literature.

Based upon real people and dramatizing (and speculating upon) real events, The Courtship of Miles Standish recasts the Pilgrims’ progress in Plymouth Colony in the light of a love triangle that may or may not have been a fact.

The principals in The Courtship of Miles Standish were all real members of the Plymouth Colony. The best known is, of course, Miles (or Myles) Standish, the Englishman hired by the Pilgrims as a military advisor, who became a leader in the colony’s fledgling government. Our other male lead, John Alden, was another Englishman, hired as a cooper (barrel maker) who also became an important figure in the colony’s governorship, as well.

Our heroine is Priscilla Mullins, who’d come from England on the Mayflower with her mother, father and siblings, all of whom perished in that first hard winter in the colony. About half the colony was lost that winter, most of them women and children, the marriageable women who remained were a hot commodity.

Another woman lost during that winter was Rose Standish. Rose Standish is sometimes referred to as Miles Standish’s wife, sometimes by the more vague term of “consort.” Either way, once she passed, Miles Standish was another of the colony’s men who were in need of a wife.

In Longfellow’s poem, Standish and Alden have become roommates and friends who share confidences. Standish, a stout 35 or so, grieving for Rose and seeing the teenage Priscilla in need of the protection of a husband, sends young Alden to present his suit to Priscilla.

Little does Standish know that Alden’s nursing a tendre for Priscilla himself; less does he know that Priscilla’s bolder than Alden, who gives her the hard sell on Standish’s behalf, and when he’s done, says “why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”

Much sturm and drang ensues. Standish roars and howls and calls Alden Brutus. Alden puffs up and proclaims himself the victor. Natives pose a threat and Standish chases them, all the while decrying Alden’s perfidy and the nature of women. Standish is rumored to have been slain, and Alden and Priscilla mourn, but carry on with their wedding preparations. And lo, on the day of the wedding, who should appear but Standish, ready to beg the forgiveness of his friend and wish the bride well. Cue the happily ever after.

Longfellow’s lusty (so far as lust in mainstream literature in the Victorian era was possible) Pilgrims were a revelation to American and English readers accustomed to thinking of the Pilgrims as dour Puritans. As Frances D. Leach writes for the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Love & Legend: The Courtship of Miles Standish,

(Captain) Miles Standish appears as a swash-buckling hero, brave but inarticulate and somewhat peevish. Handsome young John Alden is torn between his devotion to the Captain and his love for the Pilgrim maiden. Priscilla, despite her domestic virtues, speaks her mind in the manner of a modern feminist. Longfellow could tell a romantic tale, and in so doing, he made the names of these three Pilgrims household words across the nation.

Most modern readers know Longfellow more by name than for his work, having been exposed to excerpts and his shorter poems in the schoolroom, but Longfellow was the superstar historical romance writer of his day. His epic poems based upon American history were bestsellers in book form, and often adapted to the stage and song. The Courtship of Miles Standish was a sensation with mid-Victorian era readers; published as a book, the poem sold 25,000 in its first two months in print, and was rumored to have sold 10,000 copies in London in a single day.

But how much of Longfellow’s story was true?

Longfellow claimed to have heard the story of the Standish-Alden-Mullins love triangle, from his family, and as his mother was a direct descendant of Plymouth settlers, this is a possibility. His poem compresses much of the action of the first two years of the colony’s existence, but hews fairly close to the facts as known.

As for that love triangle, there was further precedent for this legend in an 1814 book by one Timothy Alden, bearing the typical early 19th century title A Collection of American Epitaphs and Inscriptions With Occasional Notes. In this volume, Alden writes that:

In a very short time after the decease of Mrs. Standish, the captain was led to think, that, if he could obtain miss Priscilla Mullins, a daughter of Mr. William Mullins, the breach in his family would be happily repaired. He, therefore, according to the custom of those times, sent to ask Mr. Mullins’ permission to visit his daughter. John Alden, the messenger, went and faithfully communicated the wishes of the captain. The old gentleman… said it was perfectly agreeable to him, but the young lady must also be consulted. The damsel was then called into the room, and John Alden, who is said to have been a man of most excellent form with a fair and ruddy complexion, arose, and, in a very courteous and prepossessing manner, delivered his errand. Miss Mullins listened with respectful attention, and at last, after a considerable pause, fixing her eyes upon him, with an open and pleasant countenance, said, “prithee, John, why do you not speak for yourself?” He blushed, and bowed, and took his leave, but with a look, which indicated more, than his diffidence would
permit him otherwise to express. However, he soon renewed his visit, and it was not long before their nuptials were celebrated in ample form… What report he made to [Standish]… tradition does not unfold; but it is said, how true the writer knows not, that the captain never forgave him to the day of his death.

So Longfellow might have made Standish a more upstanding man than he was, but John Alden and Priscilla’s happily ever after seems fair enough: John and Priscilla went on to have ten children. Of that number, Sarah Alden, the fourth, married one Alexander Standish, the second of seven children from the union of Miles Standish and Barbara Standish.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.