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Classic Review: The Cockermouth Mail by Dinah Dean

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

Was she a fool to believe in miracles?

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

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

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

A distinct “is this all there is?” is usually the result when I read a romance that reviewers gush about.

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

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

But darlings, The Cockermouth Mail is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. It more than lives up to its reputation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cockermouth Mail could have easily become Dorcas and Richard’s Tale of Woe but it never does. The darker themes of the book are leavened by humor at almost every turn, much of it surrounding that infamous mail coach. It’s the best Traditional Regency I’ve read in a long time, and I can’t recommend it enough.

I give The Cockermouth Mail – book and coach route – five horses that do not bite or kick at the traces. (Richard and Dorcas get five hot brandy toddies and five snuggly blankets!)

 


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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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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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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

Book Review: Impulsive Gamble by Lynn Turner

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Impulsive Gamble by Lynn Turner

Abbie knew that she was taking a risk, but it seemed to be a gamble that might pay off. Malachi Garrett, brilliant engineer-inventor, was so reclusive that hardly anything was known about him. Now here he was, in a bar in Oklahoma, looking for someone to drive his Shelby Cobra car in a race to Washington DC. As a freelance journalist, Abbie couldn’t pass up the chance.

Pretending to be a medical secretary urgently needing to read Washington, Abbie talked her way into being the driver. She found out too late that living a lie made her feel very uncomfortable and that she and Malachi Garrett made an explosive combination…

Rarely do we ever open a book with absolutely no preconceptions. We know a little about the story from a blurb, or have read a review, or picked the book up upon recommendation from someone whose taste we trust. It’s wonderful when the book aligns with those preconceptions, even better when it exceeds them. When neither happens, then you know how I felt after reading Impulsive Gamble.

Every review I’ve seen for this book is positively gushing. On Goodreads, the book gets slightly over four stars, which, though the book has few reviews, is still remarkable.

It’s possible that all this high-heavens praise created impossible-to-meet expectations, but although I enjoyed Impulsive Gamble, I was underwhelmed.

I loved Mal and enjoyed Abbie, and the cross-country endurance race plot is one I’d never seen in a romance. But there are holes in the plot big enough to throw a cat through, and problems with the characterizations that made even the book’s much-lauded sparkling dialogue between the two leads hard to swallow.

To wit:

  • Mal is an engineer and ex-racing driver who employs multiple mechanics, yet he can’t find anyone to drive the car? Please. The guy spends years and a chunk of change on this car, and trusts it to a complete stranger? Not in this lifetime — my baby is a lowly-but-sweet 1985 Chevy truck, and I can count on one hand the number of people I know who’ve been allowed to move it.
  • also — you don’t go out on cross-country endurance race without a mechanical crew behind you. It just wouldn’t happen, and there was no logical reason for it to happen here.
  • we’re told over and over by Abbie that Mal is such a male chauvinist, and yes, he often acts like one, yet he cooks, he cleans, he lets a woman drive his masterwork car and readily admits to being a reckless driver and terrible navigator. Never once does Abbie notice that he’s saying one thing and doing another completely, but we’re supposed to believe she’s a brilliant newspaper reporter. Right.
  • the back-and-forth arguing between the two was supposed to seem like foreplay, but sometimes it just seemed like instant replay.
  • the book’s ending (I won’t spoil it) is supposed to tie everything up in a neat bow, but leaves as many questions as it provides answers.

If it sounds like I’m being a little rough on the book, maybe so. But I actually enjoyed reading it just for Mal — he’s one of the best-written male leads I’ve ever come across in a vintage Harlequin/Mills & Boon.

Oddly enough, I think part of my problem with Impulsive Gamble was that Emma Richmond’s Heart In Hiding was so fresh in my mind. Heart In Hiding is a similar story, but with a much more believable trajectory and, in my opinion at least, a more enjoyable capable-female-meets-curmudgeonly-male story line.

I give Impulsive Gamble 3 out of 5 intact fan belts, one for the quirky plot, one for the high points the dialogue hits, and another for Mal.  I give Mal 5 out of 5 bags of pretzels.

Impulsive Gamble

Lynn Turner

Harlequin, 1989


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On Regency Tropes (Plus a Review of Gentleman’s Folly by Cynthia Bailey-Pratt)

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This book’s so obscure, this is the best image I could find of the original cover.

One of the top ten lines people use when dismissing romance novels is inevitably if you’ve read one you’ve read them all. Well guess what? The same can be said of sitcoms, Sci-Fi books/movies/TV shows and even reality TV shows. Hell, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood made careers of making the same Westerns over and over.

And yet…

I do most of my romance reading in the Traditional Regency and Regency historical genres, and there are times when I just want to read something… different. No rakes, no Almack’s, no obligatory meeting in the library in the dead of night. But Carla Kelly and Elisabeth Fairchild can only write so many books, bless their hearts, which means I spend a lot of time reading synopses and gnashing my teeth, because they all sound so much the same.

Take for instance Gentleman’s Folly by Cynthia Bailey-Pratt.

Here’s the book’s synopsis, courtesy of Goodreads:

THE STUNNING STRANGER
Jocelyn Burnwell lived in the everyday world of housekeeping and looking after her rather mischievous cousins. But one day she helped save a dashing, mysterious gentleman’s life. And her world changed forever.
Who was this elusive Mr. Hammond, this master of disguise and man of a thousand unanswered questions? Jocelyn knew only that he carried with him a letter from Napoleon; she didn’t know that the fate of England depended upon Hammond–or that she was about to embark on a grand and treacherous adventure! As she left her docile life behind and set forth with this intriguing hero, she also felt a stirring in her heart–of a love without rhyme or reason….

That is the synopsis for the original 1991 Jove edition of Gentleman’s Folly. When the book was reprinted in e-book form by Regency Reads, it got a slightly different synopsis:

Jocelyn Burnwell was caring for her mischievous cousins in her domestic world when she saved a stranger’s life. Mr. Hammond turned out to be a master of disguise who had a letter from Napoleon—which could determine England’s fate. So Jocelyn set out on an adventure with this dashing, mysterious gentleman—an adventure that would change their lives.

These are the kinds of synposes that make me want to cry, composed of strings of the pernicious cliches that bedevil Traditional Regencies and Regency-set historical romances. These two examples are particularly egregious, so much so that one could be excused for assuming that Bailey-Pratt is funning us. That she’s written the ultimate farce on the Regency genre. After all, almost every Regency trope is present and accounted for, including:

Mischievous Cousins — when I see “mischievous cousin,” my mind reads irritating plot moppet. Plot moppets are the locusts of the Regency, and usually appear either  to serve as a plot device to draw H/h together or to make “kids say the darnedest things” remarks revealing wisdom beyond their years. The good news is, plot moppets most often conveniently disappear altogether for pages and pages at a time, then pop up when the plot needs them. Hate ’em.

Master of Disguise — all I despise more than a mischievous cousin is a master of disguise. Unfortunately, they’re thick on the ground in Regency romances. Cue the: A. heiress posing as a governess; B. the gently-bred lady passing as a boy for nothing more than a pair of nankeens and a bit of binding; or C. the spy posing as a fop, complete with thirty watch fobs and quizzing glass. Heiresses posing as governesses and spies as fops are one thing, but the woman-dressed-as-a-man trope takes the prize for my least favorite disguise, simply because it’s so rarely done well or believably. 

Letter From Napoleon (indicative of spy status) — if there had been as many spies at work during the Napoleonic Wars as show up in Regencies, there would be a lot fewer Regency romances, because the war would have been dispatched with posthaste.

Unless, of course, they were Regency romance spies, who are often fooled by women dressed as boys and all too willing to drop whatever intrigue they’re pursuing when they meet the heroine. Suddenly there is absolutely no urgency about their errands, and they almost always trust the heroine (almost always a stranger) implicitly from first glance. Somehow, however, they’ll manage to remember the intrigue in time to wrap it up in the last quarter of the book.

Fate of England Depends Upon (Insert Hero’s Name Here) — as common as the spy in Regency romance is the military hero or the duke-who-simply-cannot-abandon-his-responsibilities-at-home-but-contributes-to-the-war-effort-by-doling-out-Very-Important-Advice who manages to have the fate of the nation upon his broad, manly shoulders.

If he’s a military hero, you can bet that he’s Wellington’s right-hand man, or that Wellington would be nothing without him. If he’s a spy, he’s the best in the business and has the one bit of intelligence that will change the course of the whole war. If he’s a peer, then Lord Castlereagh doesn’t make a move without consulting him first.

As if having the fate of the nation on those manly shoulders were not impressive enough, these heroes are almost always to the manor born, so to speak. We’re inevitably told that military heroes bought commissions just to join in the war effort, which of course means they had no training or practical experience prior to the war. They’re just natural born leaders, understand. Likewise spies often need no more than a good French accent to glean all the information they need to save the nation — everything else is managed by sheer force of will and personality.

The Lords SuchandSuch are clearly savants one and all.  Little else can explain how they gain all this wisdom they impart to Castlereagh, considering their relative youth (they’re rarely more than a shade over 30, if that) and all that time spent dodging matchmaking mamas at Almack’s or Vauxhall Gardens. It’s a good thing they are always so humble about everything, and never but ever want anyone to know just how much Castlereagh relies on them. Otherwise they’d just be insufferable.

A Grand and Treacherous Adventure! — otherwise known as a semi-valid workaround for the constricting mores of the day.  There were few legitimate opportunities for unmarried females to be in the company of men of no familial relation during the Regency period. Young, unmarried ladies required constant supervision, you know, or else they’d forever be haring off on some Grand and Treacherous Adventure! just to have an excuse to be alone with a suitable hero.

Said Grand and Treacherous Adventure! will usually involve some combination of these elements:

1. some dire family emergency/attempt to thwart a Gretna Green marriage/on-the-lam run from an evil guardian;

2. a road trip in an overstuffed mail coach with fellow riders who assume the H/h are married and coo appropriately;

3. only one room at the inn, which means automatic compromise to the heroine’s reputation (as though disappearing off the face of the earth with a real or would-be rake wasn’t the outside of enough);

4. the inevitable shotgun wedding when the heroine’s family, oddly absent/generally uncaring during this whole Grand and Treacherous Adventure!, finds out she’s been compromised and demands she be wedded.

Points are awarded if the heroine (or a plot moppet) also does something(s) adorable but stupid which blows their cover, endangers their lives and results in them losing every last sou.

So far, it’s not looking good for Gentleman’s Folly, but something compelled me, and I pressed on.

Little in the first chapter impressed me. Before we’re five pages in, Jocelyn, our heroine, has dressed as a boy to divert the authorities from catching that mischievous cousin of hers, Arnold, who is the world’s most precocious poacher, hit a constable over the head with a gourd and generally behaved like featherbrained girl. Hammond, despite being injured in the line of spy duty, has to rescue her from a soldier who claims she pickpocketed him. Although she must needs divest herself of her cousin’s coat to rinse Hammond’s blood out before it stains (yes, you read that right) and to bandage him up (though she neglects this duty until he all but begs her to), he still never notices she’s a girl. Granted, he is busy stuffing that all-important letter from Napoleon into the lining of her coat, for reasons I’ve still yet to understand.

As Bailey-Pratt is a veritable encyclopedia of Regency cliches, throughout the course of the book, we are treated to, in no certain order:

  •  a huge cast of family members and neighbors that are sometimes hard to keep straight;
  • the snobbish, interfering local Grand Lady who is just waiting for Jocelyn to prove unseemly;
  • kindly, wonderful servants who aid and abet most of the schemes, including the housekeeper who shapes up everyone on the place;
  • a village of less than 4000 people (yes, it’s enumerated) full of spies and ne’er-do-wells;
  • a secondary romance between a beautiful but slightly dense friend and a devoted swain;
  • rank strangers who are more than glad to help this odd lot as they go about their Grand and Treacherous Adventure!;
  • more coincidences than Prinny has mistresses.

But despite all this, it works.

Yes, it works. It works beautifully. Bailey-Pratt manages to employ almost every stock element known to exist in Traditional Regency romance, and in doing so proves how some of these familiar Regency tropes became popular.

The unworldly country-bred heroine is one of the Traditional Regency’s most frequent flyers, right up there with the poor downtrodden heroine forced to live off the charity of her relations, and at first blush, Jocelyn seems no different than a hundred other similar heroines.

Then she surprised me by refusing to fall head over heels for Hammond within the first three chapters. More surprising still, when she does begin to feel a distinct stirring of feelings for the rogue, she shrugs it off as nothing more than an exciting change from the usual humdrum. Her feelings for him develop in intriguing fits and starts as he reveals himself as kind, funny and honorable.

Jocelyn is so refreshingly normal. Sometimes she’s stubborn and silly, but mostly she’s just a harried young woman left in charge of her relatives’ ramshackle household. Not only is she not Mary Poppins-esque in her complete mastery of all domestic tasks, she’s often the opposite — she lets her cousins’ rooms go to dust and moths and allows the youngest to accumulate a nice coating of dirt that she cheerfully tells him needs drowning to remove. The only fault I found with Jocelyn is that she’s often no more than a linchpin, the still point of the action that’s going on around her.

Then there’s Hammond. I almost cringed when he quickly identified himself to Jocelyn as a spy, and not only because I thought of course he trusts her implicitly, despite barely knowing her. I waited for him to prove out to be a sorry excuse for a spy, but wonder of nine days’ wonders, Hammond is indeed an actual working spy. With results both comic and exciting, he spends (or wastes, depending upon his mood) days trying to flush out the villains at work in Jocelyn’s village and get back the famous coat and the letter inside.

It soon becomes obvious that he revealed himself to Jocelyn just to play upon her youth and trusting nature, something he’s not above doing several times in the book. He’s also not above letting someone else come to her rescue if he’s got bigger fish to fry. He’s got a job to do, and if he just so happens to encounter Jocelyn as he does it, great. If not, she’ll just have to wait. And he really is a master of disguise — Bailey-Pratt’s descriptions of the subtle ways he changes his appearance are delightful.

If it sounds like Hammond’s a first-rate cur, trust me, he’s not. He never gets anywhere near compromising Jocelyn, but neither does he always try to exclude her from the action Because She’s a Female and Must Be Kept Safe. By the end of the book, even I was believing him as the Spy That All Other Spies Admire and Wish to Be.

Which brings us to the plot moppet, Arnold. He’s the most wonderful awful boy, sort of a cross between Opie Taylor and Dennis the Menace, always up to no good. But it’s no wonder — poor kid’s being raised by wolves who routinely leave him with Jocelyn and a rotating cast of housekeepers who leave within hours or days. He lies, he carouses, he wants candy. Jocelyn no longer dreams of having children of her own for fear they will be like Arnold, and Hammond sums him up best by saying that while he can appreciate Arnold, he’d rather not have one just like him, since he likes sleeping at night.

Even the lesser cliches are employed with the utmost care. The Grand Lady really isn’t that bad — she’s nursing a surprising tendre is all. Not all the coincidences are quite so coincidental, after all, when it’s all wrapped up at the end. And if everyone this ragtag bunch meets on their Grand and Treacherous Adventure! is shockingly helpful, then it’s likely because they, like us as readers, just seem to be enjoying these characters so much.

So why does a book, built as it is like a house of Regency pattern cards, work so well? Bailey-Pratt uses these tropes as touchstones, rather than let them do the work of creating characters and plot.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of the cliches that Bailey-Pratt and so many others use in Regency romance. They are no more cliched, in fact, than any other romance novel cliches. If we automatically roll our eyes when we see these stock elements in a Regency novel, then it’s because we’ve so often seen them abused.

Well-worn tropes are the lazy author’s best friend, the writing equivalent of a paint-by-numbers kit. By using stock characters like the rake, the country-bred ingenue, the foppish dandy and the matchmaking mama, the author bypasses the difficult job of character development. We all recognize these characters, and have a mental picture of them ready to slot in to the author’s space. Framing the story around familiar plot points and situations achieves the same goal. 

Trust that I am not damning Cynthia Bailey-Pratt and Gentleman’s Folly with faint praise, because this is a book I have returned to time and again, though I still don’t know why. I give Gentleman’s Folly 5 stolen kisses, Hammond 5 hats to employ in various guises, and Arnold 5 pieces of lint-and-dust-free candy. 

One last thing about Gentleman’s Folly:

I have absolutely no idea how I came to have this book on my old Aluratek e-reader, but it’s been there three years or more. It wasn’t recommended to me. I didn’t find out about it from a review, because the only review I could find when I wrote this was one I posted at Amazon.  I didn’t buy it from Amazon, either, or it would be on my Kindle. It’s a mystery to me.

Also — no apparent reason for this book to be titled Gentleman’s Folly, and can someone please help me understand why so many books I love have awful covers? The only element in the original cover for this book that has anything at all to do with the story is the cane the erstwhile Hammond is holding.

Gentleman’s Folly

Cynthia Bailey-Pratt

199 pages

Jove (1991); Belgrave House/Regency Reads (October 12, 2010)

Like Traditional Regencies, sweeting? Try these:

Marriage of Mercy by Carla Kelly

The Country Gentleman by Fiona Hill


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Book Review: With This Curse by Amanda DeWees

There’s a curse at work here, all right. The kind that makes a book impossible to put down.

It’s no secret that I love a true Gothic romance better than almost any other romance genre, but the problem is finding new ones to read — discovering a well-written Gothic published since Gerald Ford was in office is almost impossible.

And then there was Amanda DeWees, who has, in the course of just two years, managed to publish not one but two wonderful Gothics. I considered the first, Sea of Secretsa revelation. Her latest, With This Curse, is even better.

Without further ado, here’s the synopsis, courtesy of DeWees’ website:

In 1854, seventeen-year-old chambermaid Clara Crofton was dismissed from Gravesend Hall for having fallen in love with Richard Blackwood, the younger son of the house. Alone in the world, Clara found a tenuous position as a seamstress, but she always blamed the Gravesend curse for the disaster that had befallen her—and for Richard’s death soon after in the Crimean War.

A proposal…

Now, more than eighteen years later, Richard’s twin, Atticus, seeks out Clara with a strange proposal: if she will marry him and live with him as his wife in name only to ease the mind of his dying father, Atticus will then endow her with a comfortable income for the rest of her life. Clara knows that he is not disclosing his true motives, but when she runs out of options for an independent life, she has no choice but to become Atticus’s wife.

A deception…

For Clara, returning to Gravesend as a bride brings some triumph… but also great unease. Not only must she pretend to be a wellborn lady and devoted wife to a man whose face is a constant reminder of the love she lost, but ominous portents whisper that her masquerade brings grave danger. “This house will take from you what you most treasure,” her mother once warned her. But the curse has already taken the man Clara loved. Will it now demand her life?

As I was reading With This Curse, I thought over and over of how Dean James of Mystery Scene summed up the death of the 1970s Gothic Revival:

A fair number of [1970s-era Gothics] featured dimwitted heroines who went into that proverbial dark room at the head of the stairs with no thought to the danger within, and if they had been murdered, well, it would have been little more than they deserved.

I thought of that observation not because Clara is dimwitted, but because it crystallized the secret to With This Curse’s success — making the danger Clara faces real.

Just as I raved of Oriel from Sea of Secrets, Clara is a rare worthy successor to that grandmother of all Gothic heroines, Jane Eyre. We still talk about and read Jane Eyre today because Charlotte Bronte created a heroine that didn’t blunder into the proverbial dark room with no thought to danger, but because she was pushed into it.  Every time she steps into the dark room — becoming a governess at a house with a bad reputation, marrying Rochester, running away from Rochester — it’s because of the limited choices available to her as an impoverished, unmarried woman. That’s the horror of Jane Eyre. 

That’s also why With This Curse works so well. The book is so well-grounded in the setting — mid-Victorian England — that it’s easy to understand why Clara, too, goes to the dark room by agreeing to marry Atticus and return to a house where she has known little but unhappiness. So few so-called historical romances truly make the reader understand the limitations women faced in less enlightened eras — probably because we wouldn’t read them if they did — that when these limitations are used to create real drama in the plot, it’s surprising and refreshing.

WARNING: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD

It’s not just Clara’s plight that DeWees employs to create the almost stifling sense of doom that pervades the book. DeWees ratchets up the mystery in the book by imbuing the commonplace with portent. DeWees proves that you don’t need mummies rattling chains to make a horror story — Victorian England is scary enough.

Women who stray from the straight and narrow come to terrible ends. Children are mistreated as a matter of course. The hero’s congenital physical imperfection is seen as a mark of a curse, as is an ancestor’s madness. Atticus’ cretin of a father, in keeping with the ghoulish-to-us Victorian obsession with mourning, collects death masks. Neither the mystery that’s at the heart of the story or the other weird happenings that create a spooky atmosphere are supernatural; rather, they are horrible for how natural they are, how easily they could happen during the Victorian era.   

Which is not to say that With This Curse is a joyless slog. As with any DeWees book, you are treated to beautifully written prose, excellent plotting and great characterization.

Clara is prickly, but in the best way possible, and like Jane Eyre, is witty and perfect in her imperfections. She’s a little older and wiser than most Gothic heroines, which makes her even more fun to read. Atticus quickly became one of my favorite Gothic heroes. He’s one of few heroes in the genre who is genuinely funny, kind and delightful, even as he struggles with the ghosts that haunt Gravesend Hall. Not Scooby Doo ghosts, mind you, but the real ghosts that haunt any home — memories and long-standing family dynamics that can stir up more trouble than a whole passel of the bedsheet variety of ghosts.

The romance that develops between Atticus and Clara is believable and touching; they complement each other so well, with Clara’s dryness the perfect foil to Atticus’ sweet vulnerability. They are both misfits, in their own ways, and it’s easy to see how these two are drawn together, and you are really rooting for their HEA.

I should end this review right here, but I can’t without mentioning Clara’s career as a seamstress for a famous stage actress. The brief foray we’re given into the Victorian theater world is fascinating, and for someone who could usually care less about suchlike stuff, the descriptions of the dresses are so engrossing — you owe it to yourself to visit DeWees’ Pinterest page to get an idea of Clara’s work.

I give With This Curse 5 out of 5 creepy death masks. Atticus gets 5 jaunty walking sticks, while Clara gets 5 dresses of her own design, sewn by someone else!

Enough of my yammering. Just read With This Curse already. But make sure you have several hours to kill, or don’t have anything to do tomorrow, because you won’t be able to put it down.

With This Curse

Amanda DeWees

Published 2014

Available at:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

And when you’re done, read Sea of Secrets if you haven’t already!