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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 😉

 

 


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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


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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!


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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.

In some cobwebby corner of my mind, I associated Margot Early 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 an affecting read; experiencing Zac’s perspective during his breaks is chilling, and Grace’s helplessness is almost as heartbreaking.

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. 


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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.


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Get Ready — Nocturne For a Widow Is On the Way!

Nocturne-for-a-Widow-Ebook

Here’s a first ever for Sweet Rocket — a cover reveal!

Ramping up the excitement for Nocturne for a Widow, the new historical romantic suspense novel from Amanda DeWees, here’s a teaser in the form of the cover for Nocturne, which will appear in ebook and paperback soon.

The heroine of Nocturne is none other than our favorite fictional Victorian-era actress, Sybil Ingram, who made a memorable appearance in DeWees’ recent With This Curse.  Sybil leaves the theater world (Under A Cloud, of course) to marry, but when she’s widowed and left nearly penniless, she latches on to an ill-starred inheritance from her late husband — a mysterious mansion in the wilds of the Hudson River Valley.

In short order, Sybil finds that life in her mansion is far from palatial. Strange doings in the house, a local society queen who is perhaps as dangerous as disapproving, and to cap it all, a challenge to her inheritance in the form of handsome, hot-tempered Roderick Brooke, whose own career as a violin maestro has ended in dark scandal.

Romantic comedy bred with gothic romance, Nocturne For a Widow will charm readers who loved With This Curse. “Sybil is one of the least gothic characters in With This Curse,” author DeWees says, “so I couldn’t resist plunking her down in gothic surroundings to see how she coped. Partly because of her personality, there’s a lot more comedy in Nocturne than in my previous gothics. I think of this story as Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick in a haunted house.”

Look for my review of Nocturne For a Widow here on Sweet Rocket soon, and for release news, follow Amanda on Facebook at facebook.com/AuthorAmandaDeWees, or keep an eye on her website, amandadewees.com.

Until then, enjoy this gorgeous cover, designed by James T. Egan of Bookfly Design!


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The Saga of Sara Seale and Maggy

houseofglass

The 1944 hardcover edition of House of Glass with its beautiful artwork.

There’s a very good reason that so many romance novels are retellings of classic fairy tales. Both fairy tales and romance novels exist in a realm of pure magical thinking where suspension of disbelief is the norm, fantastic characters can seem if not ordinary then sympathetic, and situations we’d never accept as possible or even attractive in real life are not only acceptable but somehow believable.

You need that kind of fairy tale mindset if you’re going to enjoy vintage Mills & Boon/Harlequin romances. If the author is Sara Seale, magical thinking is required.

Though she’s all but forgotten now, Seale was one of Mills & Boon’s earliest superstar authors. Most of her books were written and first published in the 1930s-1940s, when the worlds she creates were slightly more possible, and the characters who populate those worlds a bit less disturbing. Of the ten or so Seale books I’ve read, in all but one, the hero is much older than the heroine, and is usually in some position of authority over the heroine. Hers are the predecessors to all those boss-secretary and nurse-doctor romances that accounted for 90% of the Mills & Boon output from the 1950s through the late 1980s.

But Seale takes this tried and true romance formula to places I would never have imagined. Almost all her heroines are teenagers or just barely over 18, poor and very innocent. A good half of Seale’s books are 20th century updates of that Regency staple, the guardian/ward romance, and she seems to have been heavily influenced by the work of Jean Webster, famous for Daddy Long-Legs, that immortal story of the orphan who falls in love with her anonymous — and much older — benefactor. In one of Seale’s books, the aptly titled Orphan Bride, the hero, bitter and disappointed in love, actually picks the heroine out from an orphanage and places her with his aunt and uncle so that he might oversee the raising of his future wife.  

It’s a testament to Seale’s talent that she can make these cringe-inducing plots work almost as often as not. The best of her books — and there are several that are undeservedly forgotten gems — are coming-of-age stories, where we see the heroine through a year or more, growing from an adolescent into a woman, with the hero coming to love her as the woman she becomes.

But in all of Seale’s oeurve, House of Glass/Maggy stands as one of her more bizarre waif/older man stories. On the surface, it’s nothing readers of historical and Gothic romance haven’t seen a million times; that Seale wrote it as a contemporary in 1944, and Mills & Boon/Harlequin kept reissuing it as a contemporary as late as the 1970s is what makes the book such a curio.

Here is the synopsis for the book as it was issued in 1944, under the title House of Glass:

Maggy was young, alone in the world after her father’s death, untrained and too inexperienced to make much of a way in life; although she had a job of sorts, as companion/dogsbody to a tyrannical old lady, life did not seem to be holding out much of a future for her. Garth Shelton, years older than Maggy, crippled and embittered, was indifferent to anything that life might have in store for him. All the same he was touched by young Maggy’s plight – and in a quixotic fit he proposed marriage to her as the one way in which she could escape. And so began their strange life together – a marriage that was no marriage, between two people who might yet come to realise their growing feelings for each other, if only Maggy could forget the one barrier to Garth’s loving her – his former love, the elusive and lovely Sabrina.

“Don’t shut me out” she begged. “Please!” Maggy knew her words violated the terms of their relationship. But she was no longer the immature girl who had married Garth with no thought to the future. Even Garth had changed. He had thought nothing mattered, saw no reason to live. But the strange months of their marriage had revealed startling chinks in his armor of detachment. Could she now persuade him to grasp the one chance that might give them a full life together?

If it tells you anything about what’s in store for you when reading House of Glass, I was under the impression I was reading an historical Gothic romance (my mistake; it was a strange library edition of the late 70s Mills & Boon release that I picked this with a bunch of Gothic paperbacks at a library book sale).

Everything about the book screamed Gothic. The book’s early 20th century setting is so vague that, until cars are mentioned, it may have taken place at any time between 1820-1950. Maggy and Garth meet at an invalid spa in what might have been Harrogate or Bath in a Regency (all we lacked was a mention of taking the waters). I don’t remember Maggy’s age, rightly, but she’s definitely less than twenty, whereas Garth is maybe thirty-five.

At this point, the book becomes a cross between Rebecca and a guardian/ward romance; Garth whisks Maggy off to a draughty, isolated castle in Ireland, populated by maids who tell tales of banshees and a housekeeper who is devoted to the Sheltons — or the Shelton women, at least, of which Maggy will never be, so far as the housekeeper is concerned. On her way to her happily ever after, Maggy is disdained by most of the servants and Garth’s chilly relations, teased with hints and clues about the elusive Sabrina, led to a near-fatal drowning in a bog (yes, a bog) by the awful housekeeper, and almost led astray by a local boy who gives her the attention Garth will not (this, by the way, is another familiar device in Seale’s books — the near-seduction of the innocent by a fellow adolescent).

In the best of Seale’s books, the interactions between the hero and heroine build slowly but surely toward the HEA, and House of Glass is no different. The book lags in the middle, with Garth and Maggy not spending enough quality time together, but almost all the interactions between Garth and Maggy are memorable and poignant. If Maggy is irritatingly naive at times, and Garth snappish, they are most times so kind to each other.  Throughout the story, they’re always giving each other thoughtful little gifts, each symbolic of the way their relationship grows.

House of Glass definitely hits its stride toward the end, and if it never reaches anything nearing passion, it is precious. The book has one of the most unusual endings I’ve ever read in a romance novel, one that was not out of keeping for mainstream novels of the 1940s, but so unlike the usual M&B ending that it’s a wonder it was not revised.

Speaking of the period… As a contemporary, even for the 1940s, this book utterly fails. The clearly mid-century references — cars, telephones, Maggy’s lack of training for a job — are jarring and seem added after the fact. The medical diagnoses/treatments seem Draconian for even the first half of the 20th century. There are also a few strange ethnic references (something you unfortunately encounter often when reading vintage Mills & Boon books).

Which begs the question that is the next point of this rambling — and far too long — post: what on earth possessed Mills & Boon, to say nothing of Harlequin, to keep reprinting this book as late as the 1970s, and as a contemporary?

And Mills & Boon was indeed hellbent on marketing the book as a contemporary, going so far as to retitle it as the jaunty Maggy at least twice, with covers that placed the story squarely in the 1960s and 1970s.  The time travel was strange enough — the covers themselves were baffling.

maggyhouseofglass2 maggy2

For one Maggy cover, we have a mid-1960s collage that jumps on the nurse romance bandwagon, and has absolutely nothing to do with the story. For the early-1970s Maggy cover, our heroine has become a thirteen year-old hippie.

But the strangest cover by far is for a later 1970s edition of House of Glass. This was likely the cover that should have accompanied the library edition, and it’s interesting that even without it, I still took the book for a Gothic — it the classic hero-menacing-the-terrified-heroine Gothic cover. It also makes little more sense than the other post-1950s House of Glass covers. As Garth is wheelchair bound, it seems more than a little impossible that he’d be looming over Maggy; since the scene never happens in the book, it’s disingenuously random.

So there you have the strange saga of Sara Seale’s Maggy. As a final aside, this story was evidently dear to Seale’s heart — she repurposed the majority of the book’s content for one of her later novels, The Gentle Prisoner, which was also reprinted numerous times from the late 1940s through the 1970s.

To bring this train wreck to a smoking conclusion, I give Maggy/House of Glass four pieces of imitation Waterford crystal. If you are a fan of vintage Mills & Boon or Gothic romances, it’s worth hunting down.


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We Get Letters: Someone Wants to Know About the Header Image

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.


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Review Twofer: Second Sight and Suddenly Love by Rebecca Flanders

I don’t know how I feel about Adam’s mustard-colored sweater, but I’m loving Jennifer’s boots!

Easily one of the worst early-1980s Harlequin American Romance covers, a feat not to be dismissed.

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:

 

Second Sight

Harlequin American Romance, 1984

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….

Suddenly Love

Harlequin American Romance, 1984

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, 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, want to burn the book and fire Jennifer one after the other, 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 a 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 and often goes barefoot (more on that later). He shows up at Beth’s church in his bizarre clothing, much to her horror. He drunk dials and sends tacky flower arrangements. 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 takes place on almost every continent.    

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.

I give Second Sight 5 puppy-dog kisses. I give Suddenly Love 5 blowsy roses, and Corey 5 ugly printed shirts. YOU should give these two books a try! 

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:

Heart in Hiding by Emma Richmond

Beyond All Reason by Judith Duncan