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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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Blurb’s the Word/Hideous Romance Novel Covers Two-In-One: Cautious Lover by Stephanie James

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It’s apparent that the hero is the cautious one here. No woman is cautious who’d put herself in imminent danger of being swept out to sea. No woman is cautious who’d wear that sweater. No woman is cautious who’s wearing that sweater to be swept out to sea in the company of a man who looks like “Burning Down the House”-era David Byrne.

Now I’m curious. Just what is this supposed to be about, anyway? Here’s the blurb:

LET SLEEPING DOGS LIE

Jess Winter always operated with a master plan, and Elly Trent found herself on schedule to marry him. He said she was everything he wanted: undemanding, reliable, tolerant—and she could cook! Elly wanted to scream. Jess claimed he wasn’t arrogant, merely assertive, as he rearranged her life to suit him—and herself, as well. How could she object when Jess gave her everything she wanted:?.. Well, almost everything.

Just once, Elly wanted to shake Jess’s iron control. She was no femme fatale, but there is little that can stop a truly determined woman. Bearding a lion in his den is never without consequences—but Elly hadn’t realized they could be so delightful.

Well, here’s a first. I feel like I know less about a book after reading the blurb than before.

Turns out that Stephanie James is one of Jayne Ann Krentz’s many many many pen names. And reviewers at Goodreads say this title hasn’t aged very well…

Cautious Lover

Stephanie James

Silhouette, 1986

We’ll just pretend like we never saw this hot mess and enjoy the Talking Heads:

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

 

Hideous Romance Covers/Blurb’s the Word Twofer: Smooth Operator by Ruth Owen

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Dear me. Where to begin. Maybe with the yeti’s Smooth Operator’s beard? Or with the lady who apparently visits cemeteries at night in her negligee? No, back to the ginger’s beard — I’m not against bearded heroes, but this?

Loveswept covers are, as a rule, hideous, but this one takes the cake. Naturally I couldn’t stand myself until I found out just what the hell was supposed to be going on here. Courtesy of FictionDB, here’s the skinny:

JACK—The Desire in His Eyes Melted Her Resistance Like Hot Blue Flame….

Security whiz Jack Fagen woke to the sound of alarm sensors, and knew an intruder had entered his garden! He tumbled his unexpected visitor to the ground, shocked to discover his defiant prey was a furious, violet-eyed goddess—and his new boss! Katrina Sheffield struggled against the delicious chain of explosions Jack’s hands set off, but she couldn’t deny that his heat branded her with wildfire.

His Scoundrel’s Voice Stroked Her Senses Like Silk

She’d fought having Jack troubleshoot her computer’s security system, but someone was trying to destroy all she’d worked for—and only this ruthless wanderer could prove her innocence. Spellbound by her surrender, overcome by primal longing, Jack claimed Kat with abandon while he took aim at the shadows that surrounded her. But could the inferno of her love melt the ice around her fierce god’s heart?

Just when you think nothing’s worse than the cover, you read the blurb. Have mercy. Oh well. Everything makes more sense, doesn’t it — now that we know that Fierce God Jack has ice around his heart, I’m totally okay with the beard.