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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 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 die, leaving them contested cottages 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 man in desperate need of a barely-trained secretary or nanny appears to inevitably offer 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!

This is the world of Gentle Deception, and one can easily be forgiven if, in the midst of reading the first few pages, 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-1965.

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 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, Rosy is dragged shuffling-feet to a university to-do where she happens upon poor Callum, whom she is drawn to because he’s clearly more pitiable than even she.

For Callum, a professor, has just returned from Ethiopia, where he was 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 another 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 M&B romance, a beta male. Not only is he professional and kind, 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 offensive sexual references, 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. 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, then his wrists and 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 a vow of celibacy. Crazy, yes, but just go with it.

Such monkishness absolves Callum of any designs on her person, so Rosy 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?) In the world of M&B, this makes Rosy a pariah who will never find love.

Here’s where Gentle Deception lives up to its name — 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, the actual love scene is the point at which the book falters. 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 so jarringly cliche that it is 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. My advice? Skip Chapter Nine. 

 

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 and precious, 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. Likewise, Rosy. Callum, darling darling 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.


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The Saga of Sara Seale and Maggy

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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.

Book Review: Whistle for the Crows by Dorothy Eden

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Review Time!

Whistle for the Crows by Dorothy Eden

One of the very best things about e-books is the reissue of out-of-print and hard-to-find paperbacks.  Whistle For the Crows, Dorothy Eden’s 1962 contemporary Gothic, is a recent e-book reissue from Open Road Media, an e-book publisher that has brought many genre paperbacks back from obscurity.

Here’s the blurb:

From one of the world’s classic authors of romantic suspense comes the thrilling tale of a young woman caught between the desires of two very different brothers while researching a family’s secret history in an eerie Irish castle

For Cathleen Lamb, traveling to Dublin to record the history of the mystery-shrouded O’Riordan family is the answer to a prayer. Still grieving over the accident that killed her husband and baby daughter, she hopes to lose herself in other people’s lives. 

But something sinister is going on at the ancient castle at the edge of the moors … something beyond the scandalous skeletons rattling around the O’Riordans’ closets. The former heir was killed three years earlier in a suspicious fall. The same night, the family matriarch suffered a stroke that left her mute. 

Despite the malice that surrounds her, Cathleen is drawn to the brooding, darkly passionate man who is plotting to control the family. But even he may not be able to protect her when the crimes of the past reach into the present to terrorize the living.

Whistle For the Crows will please readers who love this particular style of 1960s-era Gothic featuring a vague, slightly dense heroine, a number of brooding/menacing/disenchanted potential heroes, and mysteries that are not so much mysteries as big misunderstandings. A few of the other boilerplate Gothic elements appear as well, including the dreadfully scary house and the huge family with even bigger secrets. Throw in old stand-bys like mysterious cries in the night, suspicious goings-on in the village and certifiably insane family members, and you’ve got a recipe for a classic mid-century Gothic.

Although Eden’s writing is not as imaginative or evocative as contemporary Gothic grand dame Mary Stewart’s, the modern reader will find it goes down much easier than the stilted, dense prose that plagued so many mid-century Gothics. Eden has a charming voice, and if Whistle For the Crows’  plot is a little overcooked, it did keep me reading — and guessing.

All in all, I give Whistle For the Crows four out of five mysterious cries in the night, and just for fun, threw in three vintage covers in addition to the new one!

Whistle For the Crows

Dorothy Eden

Ace, 1962/ Open Road Media 2013

Available in E-Book 


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Book Review: Heart in Hiding by Emma Richmond

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The arrangement seemed ideal

It would keep Verity in France until her next teaching course — it would involve traveling to the pretty but remote village of Auray. 

Of course, her boss hadn’t outlined the drawbacks of working for his friend to whom he’d offered Verity’s services. Those he’d let Verity find out for herself.

An ex-racing-car driver, the wealthy and well known Corbin McCaid was an irascible man, encased in his own private world. Not that it mattered. Verity could cope with him, even if he did dislike her — she always coped.

First, a thousand pardons for that cover picture — it’s awful, and yet it’s the best (or most viewable) example of a cover for this book that I can find on ye olde interwebs.

That gives you one indication of what a hidden gem we have in Heart In Hiding. Like 98% of Harlequin/Mills & Boon category romances from back in the day, it has been relegated to the dustbin of history, all but forgotten.

But the dustbin of history is not a bad resting place for many 1980s-era Harlequin/Mills & Boon category romances. So many of them are populated by ridiculous heroines and borderline-abusive uber-alpha heroes and hinge on plots that seem so far removed from reality that it can be hard to take them seriously.

Reading the blurb for Heart In Hiding, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this book is an excellent example of the stereotypical 1980s-vintage Mills & Boon/Harlequin. We’re presented with the classic schoolmarm-y type thrown together with the ice-cold hero with the irrevocably wounded heart. Cue the angst.

Verity, however, is no schoolmarm, but a smart, no-nonsense corporate trainer, and if Corbin comes off as just another standard-issue Harlequin alpha jackass at first, then he quickly reveals himself as a socially awkward curmudgeon. No wonder, then, that Heart In Hiding reads so much like those wonderful romantic comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, like Palm Beach Story and His Girl Friday.

Richmond throws these two into funny but utterly believable scenarios that let them play off each other beautifully. It’s a case not so much of opposites attracting, but of two very-much-set-in-their-ways types learning to live with each other.

Sensible Verity has no idea who the “wealthy and well-known” Corbin is, and is nonplussed when it turns out she’s been hired to help him write a book based upon his experiences as a racing driver on location in France.

Everything that can go wrong does. Right out of the gate, they get lost — and quite naturally squabble — looking for the small French town where they will be staying. They arrive long after dark and inadvertently spend an amusing night in the wrong house. When they finally make it to the right house, Corbin (in a wonderful and wonderfully surprising anti-alpha way) turns out to be all thumbs on anything household or electronic, and basically tears up everything he touches. It’s Verity who takes the wheel, both figuratively and literally; one of the book’s best scenes comes when Corbin, as research for his book, ropes Verity into recreating a rally race with him. He says it’s to see what a completely clueless woman would do in such a situation, and does Verity ever show him.

This being a Harlequin, of course Verity is expected to pretend to be Corbin’s lady friend at least once. It’s to get his meddlesome mother off his back, yet another well-worn Harlequin trope. Wonder of wonders, but in this book, the trope actually makes sense. How Verity thinks she’s accomplished this is one of the book’s cutest passages, though we as readers know that by now, she and Corbin are so clearly made for each other that his mother needed no convincing. And surprisingly enough, Corbin’s mother is neither a dragon nor a snob, but an earthy, endearing character who does a lot to explain Corbin’s prickly personality.

The progression these two take from sparring partners to lovers is sweetly funny and perfectly paced. The only two sour notes the book strikes concern another Harlequin stand-by, the obligatory other woman, and the reason for Corbin’s retirement from racing. Of course Corbin’s vapid, beautiful and utterly heartless ex-wife has to turn up to create trouble and make Verity feel plain and boring. This adds little or nothing to the story. The wretched ex-wife also figures into Corbin’s retirement from racing, which could have been a richer plot point had the wife had nothing to do with it.

I thoroughly enjoyed Heart In Hiding.  I give it 4 out of 5 hairdo-destroying race helmets!

Heart In Hiding

Emma Richmond

Harlequin, 1990

Book Review/Blurb’s the Word Twofer: Beyond All Reason by Judith Duncan

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With two young sons to look out for and her vengeful ex on their trail, Kate Quinn thought the Circle S looked like the perfect place to hide out. They could build a new life, a safe life. And if love never came her way, so what? But she hadn’t counted on Tanner McCall, the intimidating half-breed who ran the ranch with an iron fist—and a closed heart. Something about Tanner got to her, making her dream of love under the stars and becoming a family at last.

Yes, you read that right — the hero of this book was just referred to as a half-breed right there in the cover blurb. Sort of surprising, considering that Beyond All Reason was published in 1993.

If you can look past that bizarrely un-p.c. blurb, Beyond All Reason is actually a pretty good category romance. Judith Duncan can almost always be relied on for a category read that’s above average, and Beyond All Reason is a good example of what makes Duncan so good: believable characters in believable stories.

That established, today’s reader may find the book dated, for two distinct-but-not-quite-separate reasons.

First, that half-breed business might seem a little over the top to modern readers, making the book less believable. Reframe the story as an historical rather than a contemporary romance, and it is a sobering picture of the prevalence of discrimination against Native Americans during the book’s time frame, especially Tanner’s 1960s-1970s childhood.

The second problem with the book is the P.O.V., or lack thereof — the whole story is told from Kate’s perspective. This heroine-only story was a throwback even by 1993 standards, and Duncan’s choice not to write anything from Tanner’s perspective is both jarring and confusing. This decision is Beyond All Reason’s biggest weakness, considering that so much is made of Tanner’s harrowing childhood.

That understood, the book is a wrenching tale of two very wounded people finding each other when they need each other most, and is worth a read.

I give Beyond All Reason 4 out of 5 ten gallon hats. I give that cover, with a decidedly Caucasian Tanner who looks nothing like Tanner is described in the book, 5 out of 5 cow patties.

Beyond All Reason

Judith Duncan

Silhouette, 1993

 


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Review: The Bath Eccentric’s Son by Amanda Scott

Book Synopsis:

Beautiful Nell Bradbourne lost her family estate to her distant cousin Jarvis. Now that pernicious and persistent gentleman sought to possess her as well, and to escape this unwanted wedlock, Nell fled to Bath.

But instead of safety Nell found herself in the embrace of scandal, as the handsome and rakish Brandon Manningford decided that only she could save him from ruin by giving him her hand and everything else she owned.

Nell was caught between a ruthless scoundrel and a shameless libertine–one who had stolen her birthright, while the other was shockingly stealing her heart…

A Traditional Regency in the Georgette Heyer vein, The Bath Eccentric’s Son never slows down — it’s one thing right after the other, from attempted kidnapping to a visit from Prinny to a daring showdown at a gentleman’s club.

It’s fascinating just to see how perfectly Scott hews to the Heyer pattern card — from the spot-on use of Regency-era slang to the historical detail about the city of Bath, if Scott’s name wasn’t on the cover, you’d think you were reading one of Heyer’s lesser novels.

Nothing’s as it seems in Bath, from the titular Bath Eccentric to the authorship of popular gothic romances to the city itself.  The Bath Eccentric’s Son is as much about the city of Bath as about the characters, and Scott explodes long-forgotten details about the city in a way that underscores the book’s action, using the feathers and sticks used to paint walls to mimic marble, the false-fronted buildings backing up filthy alleys, and the streets hardly wide enough for the carriages as a mirror for her characters’ deceptions and desperation.

Readers expecting red-hot romance should be forewarned — The Bath Eccentric’s Son is a true Traditional Regency, which means the love scenes between leads Nell and Brandon are more slow-burn than fireworks. But if the book’s more interesting for its descriptions of Bath and Gothic romances of the Regency era than for the romance, it’s still a fun read.

I give The Bath Eccentric’s Son 4 out of 5 poke bonnets. Give it a try!

The Bath Eccentric’s Son

Amanda Scott

Paperback, 224 pages

Published February 1st 1992 by Signet/2013 Ebook


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Book Review: Marriage of Mercy by Carla Kelly

Marriage of Mercy

Synopsis:

From riches to rags, Grace has had to swallow her pride and get a job as a baker. But everything changes when she’s the beneficiary of a surprise inheritance.

Her benefactor’s deal comes with a catch: give up her life of toil and live in luxury only if she marries his illegitimate son, a prisoner of war. It’s an offer she can’t afford to refuse. But her husband-to-be is dying, and he begs her to take one of his men instead—to marry purely out of mercy….

A marriage of convenience with a complete stranger… Could this arrangement ever work?

I am a faithless reader. The authors that I love are not necessarily auto-buys for me; no matter how much I appreciate an author’s talent, the subject really has to draw me in before I’ll read the book. Here’s the story of how I almost missed a great book by one of my favorite authors, simply because of a bad synopsis.

Although Carla Kelly has been writing category romance for several years now, it’s obvious that Harlequin, the publisher of Marriage of Mercy, has no interest in playing up the strengths of her writing, but is anxious to pigeonhole her books, perhaps to give them greater appeal. That’s the only explanation that makes sense of the fact that Harlequin gave Marriage of Mercy a title that has nothing to do with the story, then slapped a synopsis on the book that gets many of the major plot details wrong.

Since I couldn’t do it better myself, here’s a great synopsis, courtesy of Wendy Clyde’s review at All About Romance:

The daughter of a baronet, the heroine, Grace, has slipped. When her father died penniless, she was forced to become a baker and is now considered a member of the working class. Pragmatic Grace has never minded her new station in life, as she is doing work that she enjoys, and that allows her contact will people from all walks of life – from the candler’s young grandson to the Marquis of Quarle, Lord Thomson. She bonds with the elderly Marquis over her specialty biscuits, Quimby Cremes, taking them to him personally when he becomes too ill to purchase them at the shop himself, and then feeding them to him when he becomes too ill to even do that. When the Marquis passes away, Grace is told to come to the reading of his will. There she learns that she is to be given the dower house and thirty pounds per anum from the estate, and that an American POW, the Marquis’ bastard son, is to be paroled there under her care.

When Grace and the Marquis’ lawyer reach Dartmoor to release the prisoner they find him dying. Before he passes away, the Marquis’ son begs Grace to take another prisoner in his place, and while the lawyer is obtaining medical help the switch is made and Grace releases a different prisoner, Rob Inman. What follows is typical Carla Kelly. Rob quickly endears himself to Grace’s friends and neighbors, and becomes Grace’s friend and confidant. But a villain has plans for Rob, other than his release when the war is over, and it soon becomes difficult for Rob and Grace to decide friend from foe. Mysterious letters appear in the dower house, with instructions such as “Trust No One”, and Rob is followed everywhere he goes by a man that will kill him if he’s ever out of Grace’s sight. In this atmosphere of confusion and danger, Rob and Grace fall in love.

I would have read the book that Wendy Clyde describes in a heartbeat — not so the book Harlequin is touting.

There’s nothing in the Harlequin synopsis that even hints at Marriage of Mercy’s unusual hero, an American prisoner of war, or of the book’s unusual setting, the War of 1812. It’s as though Harlequin hoped you’d buy the book because you love Regency settings and the umpteenth hero who was Wellington’s secret right-hand man.

Whether Harlequin just doesn’t know how to market books like Marriage of Mercy, or is hoping to bait-and-switch readers into buying a book that’s unlike most other Regency-set books, I don’t know. I just hope they appreciate what a rare talent they have in Carla Kelly.

Not to make this review more about the author than the book, but I can’t say enough good things about Kelly. She’s the rare romance novelist who transcends the limitations of the genre. She routinely turns the Regency setting that has become synonymous with silly, wallpaper historicals on its head. Her heroes and heroines are rarely wealthy or titled, and are never exceptionally beautiful or of the alpha male variety. Even minor characters are imbued with detail that makes them real.

While many of her books have the wartime settings that are so popular in Regency romances, glittering balls are few and far between, as are drawing rooms, for that matter. Rather, her talent is for the collateral damage of war that is often glossed over in romance novels; few characters escape unscathed.  But there’s no purple prose in a Carla Kelly book; she employs a spare, elegant prose style, full of small, telling details, and truly creates a world within the covers of her books. Kelly’s the one writer I’ve encountered who can, in three or four sentences, sum up years of a character’s back story.

Marriage of Mercy, I’m happy to say, displays all of Kelly’s remarkable talents. As usual with her books, the characters are unforgettable. In a less-skilled writer’s hands, both Grace and Rob would have been bitter about their lot in life, but Kelly never takes the easy way out, and instead gives us a heroine who has accepted her lost social position with all that her name implies, and a hero who, rather than hold a grudge against the English who’ve attacked his country and imprisoned him in deplorable conditions, brings joy to all he meets.

I can’t say enough about the deft way Kelly handles the War of 1812 in this novel. Kelly truly captures the essence of life during wartime, from the belligerent treatment of prisoners of war to the uncertainty faced by citizens in both countries in an era when news from the war front was weeks or months out of date.

My only minor quibble with Marriage of Mercy revolves around the subplot that Wendy Clyde mentions, the mysterious letters and even more mysterious villain. Grace and Rob’s story simply didn’t need this, and wonder if that may not have been an editorial decision on the part of Harlequin.

I give Marriage of Mercy 4 out of 5 Quimby Cremes. Grace and Rob, however, get 5 each! 

No matter what its title, Marriage of Mercy is well worth reading. I just wish Harlequin would have a bit more faith in an author who has done much to prove her worth.

Marriage of Mercy

Carla Kelly

Mass Market Paperback: 288 pages

Publisher: Harlequin

Release Date: May 22, 2012

Did you like this book, dumpling? Here are a couple more books similar to Marriage of Mercy:

Charity Begins at Home by Alicia Rasley (look over that awful cover – it’s a good one, I promise)

One Perfect Rose by Mary Jo Putney