Sweet Rocket

Romance Reviews, Author Profiles and More…


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Book Review: Dragon Rose by Christina Pope

 

 

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It’s nothing groundbreaking, but I like this cover for Dragon Rose.

The shadow of the cursed Dragon Lord has hung over the town of Lirinsholme for centuries, and no one ever knows when the Dragon will claim his next doomed Bride. Rhianne Menyon has dreams of being a painter, but her world changes forever when a single moment of sacrifice brings her to Black’s Keep as the Dragon’s latest Bride. As she attempts to adjust to her new life — and to know something of the monster who is now her husband — she begins to see that the curse is far crueler than she first believed. Unraveling the mystery of what happened to the Dragon’s Brides is only the beginning….

 

Some days, all you want from a book is pure escapism. Such as I was, when I chose to spend my evening with Christina Pope’s Dragon’s Rose.

First, let’s talk about all the things Dragon’s Rose is not:

  • amazingly intricate world-building fantasy. Dragon’s Rose seems to take place in some late medieval alternate universe/Ruritania that could easily be England.
  • adult romance featuring adult characters. Rhianne is a very young 19-20, for starters. She talks and thinks like a girl most times. The Dragon could be any age, but has the speech and mannerisms of a young adult male. This book may very well be YA fiction, for all I know.
  • YA romance featuring adult situations. There’s no hot and heavy here, nor kisses with great promise. not even much mental lusting.

Now, for what Dragon’s Rose is:

  • an fairy tale in the Beauty and the Beast vein.
  • a surprisingly good fairy tale that hangs very loosely upon the Beauty and the Beast trope.
  • a barely kisses-only romance that nevertheless gives you the impression of great affinity between the two leads.
  • a potential Disney/Pixar script. Pope’s descriptions had me imagining Dragon’s Rose as a beautiful piece of animation.
  • a pleasant way to while away a few hours waiting out an apparent monsoon.
  • a book by an author I would be happy to read again.

It appears that Dragon’s Rose is part of the Tales of Latter Kingdoms series. I have read none of the rest of the series, and did not even realize Dragon’s Rose was part of a series.

Dragon’s Rose gets three chiaroscuro treatments of rose gardens. Rhianne gets three canvases someone else stretched, bless her heart. The Dragon gets three cloaks without hoods, for he needs them.


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Friday Fun: What I Am Reading Right Now

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Fine. That’s not me. That’s Veronica Lake. But if you think I don’t actually sit around reading in turbans and gaudy jewelry, then you’re wrong, jack. (via tumblr.com)

 

It’s Friday, darlings! That means two whole days when work will not interfere with my reading! So what am I reading?

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I spent most of yesterday evening sitting in a doctor’s office, reading Kathryn Lynn Davis’ Child of Awe in an e-book reprint. First published in 1987, this is an old-fashioned Scottish clans romance saga, and saga it is; I read the equivalent of 40 Kindle pages, and our heroine, Muriella, is still indeed a child. However, she was being abducted by our ostensible hero, John Campbell, just as I was finally called in for my appointment, so there’s hope she’ll make adulthood before I am old enough for Social Security.

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Ouch. I should have warned you to put on sunglasses before taking a look at this 1969 edition of Jane Beaufort’s A Nightingale in the Sycamore.

Virginia dearly loved the Meadow House, which had been left to her by her father along with sundry debts, and it was unthinkable that she should have to sell it. Yet the “sundry debts” looked like making this a necessity… until Fate took a hand. A car accident deposited, practically on her doorstep, a well-known pianist and composer the young and handsome Charles Digby Wickham. For some weeks the charming but temperamental Charles could not be moved, to the annoyance of the young doctor who attended him at Meadow House and who was himself in love with Virginia; but his advent is the turning point in Virginia’s life — both financially and, definitely, romantically!

I actually hunted this one down because I thought I had read it before, only to realize that this plot is eerily similar to a book I love: Carla Kelly’s wonderful Libby’s London Merchant, a Regency nonetheless!

I’ve always said that the Mills & Boon romances of the 1940s-1960s have more in common with historical romance — particularly Traditional Regencies — than with what we think of as contemporary romance, but I never realized the link was that direct.

 

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Yes, yes, I know you don’t come here for non-fiction, but to be perfectly honest, Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven is my first-line read this week.

What will you read this weekend, lovelies?


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Review: Nocturne For a Widow by Amanda DeWees

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First off, how much do you love that cover for Nocturne For a Widow? I love the colors, the composition, and most of all that silhouette.

That gorgeous cover is not all  Nocturne For a Widow has to recommend it. If you missed my synopsis when Sweet Rocket did the cover reveal, here’s a taste of what you can expect inside:

Widowed on her wedding night!

Sybil Ingram is at a crossroads. Once she was the toast of the London stage, but by 1873 her draw isn’t what it used to be, and her theater troupe is foundering. When her trusted mentor asks her to take the blame for his financial misdeeds, Sybil sees no choice but to retire from the life she loves and move to America to marry New York City hotel magnate Alcott Lammle. But her path to happiness is cut short when Lammle dies suddenly–and in financial ruin.

Widowed, nearly penniless, and unable to return to England, the determined diva sets out to stake a claim on Brooke House, an eccentric Gothic revival manor in the wilds of the Hudson River Valley. She soon finds, however, that a ghostly presence wants her gone. Even worse, her claim is challenged by the most insolent, temperamental, maddeningly gorgeous man she’s ever met: Roderick Brooke, a once-famous former violinist whose career ended in a dark scandal.

Soon it’s a battle of wills as Sybil matches wits–and trades barbs–with Roderick, finding herself increasingly drawn to him despite her growing suspicion that there is a connection between him and the entity that haunts Brooke House. But an even greater threat arises in the form of the mysterious, powerful queen of local society, Mrs. Lavinia Dove. For reasons that Sybil can’t imagine, Mrs. Dove is determined to oust Sybil from her sphere . . . and the lengths to which she will go are chilling indeed.

By turns mysterious and moving, sparkling and spooky, Nocturne for a Widow follows a spirited heroine through adventures in life, love, and death. From the colorful theatrical world of late-Victorian London to the American wilderness, Sybil’s travels will test her mettle–and her heart.

As I was reading Nocturne For a Widow, two authors’ works kept coming to mind: Barbara Michaels’ historical Gothics, and Deanna Raybourne’s Lady Julia Gray mysteries. It’s hard to heap higher praise on an author than to compare her to either of those authors, both of whom weave important but too-often overlooked elements into their spooky tales — wit and humor. It’s a hard balance to strike, but like Raybourne and Michaels, Amanda DeWees does it wonderfully.

If you’ve found Gothic romances too cobwebby and suffocating, then DeWees’ books, especially Nocturne For a Widow, will disabuse you of those notions. A sprinkling of cheeky wit was but one of the standout features of DeWees’ Gothic historical debut, Sea of Secrets and her follow-up Gothic With This Curse  and with Nocturne For a Widow, she brings that delicious humor to the forefront, creating characters and a plot that balance classic Gothic suspense and lighthearted humor so deftly that she nearly creates an entirely new genre — the cozy Gothic romance.

We Gothic lovers are unused to heroines who are not the overlooked governess, the plain-but-bright orphan, or the tragic beauty, which is why Sybil Ingram is such a revelation. Beautiful, vivacious and ever-so-funny, Sybil makes the perfect foil for each and every pathos-laden situation DeWees throws her way, from marrying for money only to find herself widowed immediately to arriving at a desolate and clearly disturbed estate to dealing with unhinged would-be spiritualists. She’s never daunted, never cowers, and if Sybil blunders into that proverbial dark at the top of the stairs more than once, it’s never for being too clueless to know better. Our Sybil’s just that fearless and self-assured, two few-and-far-between qualities in the Gothic heroine.

It spoils nothing to reveal that Sybil goes to Brooke House expecting a pitifully neglected young stepson to go with the forgotten estate, only to find that her stepson is fully grown and anything but pitiful. That’s where our hero, Roderick makes his stomping, bellowing and unforgettable entrance. No Gothic romance is complete without a haunted hero, and Roderick Brooke is one you’ll remember long after you’ve put Nocturne down. Roderick is, in fact, where the Barbara Michaels connection comes to the fore; if you loved Michaels’ Master of Blacktower and its blustering, howling and yet endearingly vulnerable hero, Gavin Hamilton, then Roderick Brooke is just the hero for you. His and Sybil’s interactions crackle with chemistry, and theirs is a happy ending that you hope is just the beginning.

And is it just a beginning? If you paid close attention to Nocturne’s gorgeous cover, you couldn’t have missed “Sybil Ingram: Book One” at the very top. It’s my dearest hope that this is but our first adventure with Sybil and Roderick, and that we can look forward to more of their fabulous chemistry together to come.

I give Nocturne For a Widow five suitcases that just won’t stay where you leave them. I know you’ll just love it.

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Nocturne For a Widow by Amanda DeWees

Amazon Digital Services, Inc.: 2014

Available in ebook and paperback at Amazon

Looking for something to read when you finish Nocturne For a Widow? Try these, precious:

With This Curse by Amanda DeWees

A Bed of Thorns and Roses by Sondra Allen Carr


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Saga of Sara Seale and Maggy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Mary Stewart: 1916-2014

The Guardian is reporting that author Mary Stewart passed away on May 9, 2014.

The grand dame of the contemporary Gothic romance, Stewart published her first novel, Madam Will You Talk? in 1956. Stewart was an instant success, ushering in a new era of popular fiction populated by a new kind of heroine. Writes Rachel Hore for The Guardian:

Stewart’s stories were narrated by poised, smart, highly educated young women who drove fast cars and knew how to fight their corner. Also tender-hearted and with a strong moral sense, they spoke, one felt, with the voice of their creator.

Stewart wrote over 50 books during her 40-plus-year career, in genres including romantic suspense, Gothic, fantasy and juvenile literature.

Having come to Stewart’s work decades after their first publication, I’m not sure I understood just how spectacular her books must have seemed at the time until I began reading vintage Gothics and Harlequins from the same period. The heroines of these books would have considered Stewart’s heroines too forward, a bit fast, and altogether too self-assured to be borne. The Gothic and Harlequin heroines of 1950s-1970s often seem buffeted by the world, pushed into arranged marriages and secretarial jobs wearing sensible clothing in subdued colors. Things happen to these heroines — not so the Mary Stewart heroine. She’s either actively pursuing adventure, ala Christy Mansel in The Gabriel Hounds, or the architect of her own fate, like the heroine of The Ivy Tree. 

As much as she was responsible for writing a more modern heroine, Stewart hewed more to classic literature than to popular literature in her prose. A stylist whose books never pandered to her audience, she assumed her readers got the references and read between the lines. In her finest books, plot, setting and characters come together like the inner workings of a watch — tightly wound, intricate yet sturdy, each word chosen with precision to propel the mechanism forward.

Without a doubt my favorite Mary Stewart book is The Ivy Tree. You can read my review here, but let me preface that by saying that this book is the essence of Mary Stewart — characters that you wish you knew, an evocative setting that is integral to the story, a plot that seems simple on the surface but becomes more involved as the story unfolds, and prose that is both lush and succinct at once.

In honor of a talent unlike any other, here are three of my favorite Mary Stewart reads:

The Moonspinners (1962)

The Moonspinners was the first Mary Stewart book I read. I read it as a young teenager, maybe 12 or 13, after finding it in the library and recognizing the title from the Disney adaptation of the same name.

While the book is much less shiny-happy than the movie, The Moonspinners was a young girl’s perfect introduction to Mary Stewart and to the suspense genre. Heroine Nicola arranges to meet her cousin on the island of Crete, but when she arrives earlier than Frances, she finds herself involved with a hero in trouble and a mystery to unravel. The mystery was engrossing, to my younger self, and Nicola, who reads even now as very young for a Stewart heroine, was a big improvement over Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. I wanted to be just like her.

I likely didn’t appreciate just how wonderful Stewart’s prose was, then, but here’s an example that makes me swoon as an adult:

…on the darkest night, the maidens take their spindles down to the sea, to wash their wool. And the wool slips from the spindles into the water, and unravels in long ripples of light from the shore to the horizon, and there is the moon again, rising above the sea….Only when all the wool is washed, and wound again into a white ball in the sky, can the moon-spinners start their work once more…

Nine Coaches Waiting (1958)

My first Mary Stewart experience as an adult was Nine Coaches Waiting, which I read in college.  I was reading Victorian British Literature at the time, and can remember thinking that Nine Coaches Waiting was the modern heir to all those classic Gothics — a seemingly simple governess Gothic with prose every bit as accomplished and evocative as Bronte’s (and infinitely more readable than Wuthering Heights, might I add). I felt sophisticated just reading this book, with the descriptions of Paris and the French countryside, and identified with lines like this:

[Loneliness] was something which was always there… one learns to keep it at bay, there are times when one even enjoys it — but there are also times when a desperate self-sufficiency doesn’t quite suffice, and then the search for the anodyne begins… the radio, the dog, the shampoo, the stockings-to-wash, the tin soldier…

My Brother Michael (1959)

When a book’s first line is “nothing ever happens to me,” you know something big is in the offing.

Within the first few pages of My Brother Michael, a stranger approaches heroine Camilla Haven in a crowded Athens café, hands her the keys to a car, and whispers “a matter of life and death.” On the stranger’s instructions, Camilla ends up traveling to Delphi to meet a Monsieur Simon, only to find Simon Lester, searching for clues to his brother’s death during World War II. But is Simon Lester Monsieur Simon? And what did his brother Michael know?

My Brother Michael is one of Stewart’s more plot-driven novels, and though Camilla may not seem that trailblazing to modern readers, as a wandering divorcee who travels alone with a stranger, she was enough to make her contemporary Gothic and Harlequin heroines clutch their pearls and gasp.  And so wryly wise, when she says “I get to know men quickest by the things they take for granted.”

I’ll sum up with one of my favorite quotes from Mary Stewart, one that describes her books and all good books, for that matter:

The best words in the best order… the same shock of recognition and delight when someone else’s words swam up to meet a thought or name a picture.

***

P.S. Most of Mary Stewart’s books have never been out of print, or not for long, so they’re easy to find in bookstores and libraries. Many of her books are available in e-book, too.