Sweet Rocket

Romance Reviews, Author Profiles and More…


2 Comments

Classic Review: The Cockermouth Mail by Dinah Dean

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

Was she a fool to believe in miracles?

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

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

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

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!)

 

Advertisements


2 Comments

Review: Margot Early’s “The Keeper”

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

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

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. 


Leave a comment

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!


5 Comments

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