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Why I Didn’t Finish the Book: The Awful Heroine

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Greta Garbo bitches it up in Flesh and the Devil.

 

Here is a post that serves many a master: it is my first “Why I Didn’t Finish the Book” post, it is two mini book reviews in one, and it begins a discussion we will continue later about what we as readers expect from heroines.

For now, we concentrate on Why I Didn’t Finish The Book.

In both of the books presented here, it’s the one factor most likely to make me throw down a romance novel in disgust: the awful heroine.

First, I want to clarify the important distinction between the unlikable heroine and the heroine who is unlikable to me. Some of my favorite romance heroines are the anti-heroines; a heroine who is bit salty or sharp around the edges is wonderful when drawn by a skillful hand, and even ones who have TSTL moments can be redeemed. Likewise, my awful heroines may be just fine to you. To each her own.

As for what makes a heroine awful, it’s like pornography; I have no clear-cut criteria, but I know an awful heroine when I see one. But to give you some idea of how a heroine can ruin a book entirely, I give you two of the most awful heroines I have ever encountered.

No Adrienne

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The first of my disappointing heroines is Adrienne, from a 1983 Silhouette Special Edition from Faye Wildman titled Lovesong.

Adrienne gave herself to her music, heart and soul. Rock’s most glamorous chanteuse had a public persona that delighted the media, but a private emptiness no man had yet been able to fill.

Cal McQueen had once known her world better than anyone, but had left the glitter and flash behind because of a personal tragedy.

Hand in hand, on the sun-washed beaches of his island retreat, they moved toward a healing future and sang a lasting duet of love.

This is one of the early Silhouette releases, and for those of you who are not lovers of old series titles, Silhouette was, in its earliest years, sort of the anti-Harlequin; the heroines were often successful in their own right, the action was a little racier, and though an HEA was verboten, the road to it was often more believable.

Needless to say, I had high hopes for this character and for this book. And though the premise is interesting, the dialogue well-written, and the hero not a total drag, it goes over like a lead balloon. Why? Adrienne.

Like most category romances of the period, Lovesong is written primarily from the heroine’s perspective. I only made it about halfway through Lovesong before realizing two things: one, the synopsis is wrong, as Adrienne is NOT empty, and two, though Adrienne be filled, she is filled with herself. At that point I stopped reading, as I could not spend any further time in the head of a woman who:

  • believes that every man she encounters is after her body. Every third thought of Adrienne’s is about men wanting her, or being tired of men wanting her, or hating men who want her.
  • is obsessed with her appearance. Adrienne’s that friend who spends more time getting ready than going out — not because she’s indecisive, but because she’s kissing herself in the mirror. Every second thought of Adrienne’s is about how good she looks in this jumpsuit/sun dress/pair of panties.
  • thinks all conversations are about her. Cal and his stepbrother Lyall, who is Adrienne’s manager, are catching up after years apart. Adrienne’s reaction? “Telling him all my darkest secrets, Lyall?” Because clearly Adrienne is all that happened of any interest during the intervening years.

I feel confident in saying that everyone knows an Adrienne or two. I also feel confident in saying that like me, most everyone avoids Adriennes like the plague.

Thing is, when you are reading a category romance, you spend a lot of time with a heroine. If the heroine doesn’t impress you, you’re in for a long row to hoe. If she becomes repugnant to you on page 2, don’t be a fool like me and keep going to page 80-something. Maybe my standards are too high, but I just couldn’t stand Adrienne. Make that “yo Adrienne” a “no Adrienne.”

Unintentionally Hilarious

It’s not far from shooting fish in a barrel to make fun of the fashions and slang in a vintage category romance, but Lovesong is a laughfest. First, though it’s publication date is 1983, it reads more like it was written in 1978 or 1979, because Cal is clearly patterned after John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever. Silk shirts and medallions are thick on the ground here. And on their first meeting, Cal gives Adrienne a leather medallion. Because leather tooling is his hobby.

Southern Belle From Hell

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For all her faults, Adrienne was just shallow and self-absorbed. Stella of Meagan McKinney’s 2001 romantic suspense novel Still of the Night is, in a word, a bitch.

The synopsis:

For almost two centuries, the proud St. Valliers have inhabited Shadow Oaks, the once elegant Cane Town plantation. Now only two descendants remain amidst the peeling paint and faded draperies: thirty-something college professor Stella and her elderly aunt, Rose — both of them spinsters…

…Stella is convinced that the key to Shadow Oaks’ future lies within the old walls of the house itself. Pirate ancestors supposedly concealed a treasure in the vicinity of a secret room. But her search is swiftly disrupted by obstacles she never could have foreseen: A shocking crime in the bayou. Whispers about a local conspiracy with links to high-reaching government officials. Gunshots in the night — and a wounded stranger collapsing on Stella’s property.

As with Lovesong, most of Still of the Night is from Stella’s perspective. It’s a fairly limited one, as we discover a mere eleven pages into the book.

Stella answers her aunt’s suggestion that she get out and find herself a man by asking if her aunt means “one of the roustabouts who pays for a peekaboo at the strip club in town? Or perhaps good ol’ farm boy Billy Ed, who could treat me to a romantic night at the dog races before we make out in his TransAm?”

Stella, you see, is Southern aristocracy and a college professor, which means her bloodline is purer and her mental capacity higher than anyone else in the parish. Nearly every single page I read has Stella putting someone down or being a snooty cow to someone for no better reason than that she is Stella St. Valliers. This includes her friends. She actually all but calls her ostensible best friend trash more than once.

Nor is our hero, Garrett Shaw, immune. Garrett spends most of the book working undercover as a bouncer in a hellhole of a strip joint — and being insulted for being low-class by Stella. Even when he helps her or gives her sound advice, she’s turning her nose up at him, and remarking that “he didn’t seem to mind her cutting remarks or dismissals.” Because she’s smarter than he is. Which may be true, because he never seems to notice that she is living in the 19th century in her mind, what with her ideas on class and her “cutting remarks.”

Yet I was willing to forgive Stella her small-mindedness as long as some plot twist changed her view or gave her a taste of her own medicine. Alas. I made it about two-thirds of the way through Still of the Night before conceding that this was never going to happen. By that time, I was actively hoping one of the baddies would use her for alligator bait.

I wish I could say the story somewhat redeems the book, but again, alas. By the book’s construction, we know who the villains are from the beginning, so it’s merely waiting to see Stella catch up. She is so insufferable about her own superior intelligence that it is almost funny to watch her not catch on.

Unintentionally Hilarious

It seems the big bad guy of the book developed an unholy obsession with Stella after being rejected by her in high school. Like everyone else in town, he is beneath her. Not surprisingly, he repeatedly calls her snobbish and stuck-up. Granted he’s a racist thug, but as a reader, it’s hard not to enjoy the only shred of comeuppance Stella receives. And Stella’s own prejudices took some of the bite out of his; e.g., how bad can the villain be when the heroine is not much different?

Why I Didn’t Finish the Book(s)

Believe it or not, there were reasons deeper than sheer disgust that kept me from finishing Lovesong and Still of the Night.

As a 1983 category romance, Lovesong is no better than it ought to be, really. Most romances from the 1940s-1980s were told almost exclusively from the heroine’s point of view, and like Lovesong, tend to be heavy on trivial details and telling rather than showing. Short length and editorial restrictions mean that many of these books are, for better or worse, a biography or autobiography of the heroine. That’s fine, so long as the heroine is interesting or enjoyable; when she’s Adrienne… don’t torment yourself.

So…. I may not have any deeper reason than disgust for not finishing Still of the Night. Nor is this the first book I’ve stopped reading because I despised the heroine. Feisty I can handle. Hot-tempered and mouthy I can handle. But I can’t accept a heroine who is mean-spirited and thinks she is above others, unless the moral of the story is her altar call.

There is a faint possibility that Stella got some kind of comeuppance at the end of the book, but I doubt it, and that, darlings, is a story for another day. So stay tuned.

 

Now the judgment comes down:

Lovespell by Faye Wildman (Silhouette, 1983) receives one record, not gold. Adrienne receives half of a jumpsuit, which she will no doubt wear beautifully. Cal receives one piece of tanned leather. Go forth and prosper, Cal.

Still of the Night by Meaghan McKinney (Kensington, 2001) receives one box camera, just for the mention of E.J. Bellocq. Garrett gets one sharp antique cane-cutting knife, just to get him the hell out of Louisiana. Stella gets NOTHING.

 

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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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Ringing in the New Year, Randomly

Gratuitous vintage Andy Virgil illustration, just because I can.

Happy New Year already, guys and dolls! I hope all your holidays were spectacular, and that your new year has gotten off to a wonderful start. Sweet Rocket is getting off to a wonderful, if belated start; here are a few newsy-type things I think you’ll enjoy:

Friends + Madeline Baker = Love

Late to the party as always, I’m just now getting back to my blogging chores. So guess what greeted me when I opened my dashboard? Sweet Rocket exploded last week. All without my knowledge.

The reason was, as it often is, totally random: over at BuzzFeed, one Julia Pugachevsky created an, um, interesting quiz about which Friends character one should hook up with.  Said quiz included a link to an image in one of my all-time favorite Sweet Rocket posts, Hideous Romance Novel Covers, the Madeline Baker Edition.  No, that makes no sense to me, but then I don’t ever remember watching Friends (before you toilet paper my house, I’m not a TV watcher, but I did love Seinfeld). Do go over and have a look and help me to understand how Madeline Baker and Friends are related. In the meantime, if a Friends quiz means a wider audience for the understated glory of a Madeline Baker romance novel cover, then carry on, BuzzFeed, carry on!

Open Library Is Exploding, Too — With Vintage Romances!

If you, like me, find that most of your romance reading is of the yellowed and crumbly variety, you’ll swoon when I drop this bomb on you: Open Library seems to be adding more vintage romance and vintage Gothic romance novels every flipping day!  Seriously. I eliminated about 5o percent of the titles on my Amazon Wish List while waiting to exchange two frozen legs of lamb and a huge bag of clean laundry for a vintage Pioneer hi-fi receiver (thank you, Little Brother — when the receiver’s hooked up, you’ll be the first to be blasted with “Jerusalem” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer at 3:00 a.m. Wait for it).

An Assortment of New Links in the Blogroll Awaits You!

Speaking of yellowed and crumbly, I finally got around to updating my dusty Blogroll. I’m criminally lazy sometimes, really. I added a slew of new blogs and websites I thought Sweet Rocket readers might be interested in, but to make things even easier for you, here’s a rundown, in no particular order:

  • Sweet Rocket on Tumblr: Shameless self-promotion, yes, but for your own good, promise. The Sweet Rocket Tumblr is where most of my romance ephemera ends up now, so if you Tumbl, do follow me there. There are a billionty bizarre romance novel covers, strange love letters, weird love songs and other romantic oddities for your enjoyment.
  • Miss Bates Reads Romance: There is something infinitely pleasing about finding another person who loves to read what you love to read, and it’s pleasure ten-fold when that person writes about the books, and writes about them so well. Only a curmudgeon wouldn’t love Miss Bates’ reviews.
  • Eight Ladies Writing:  Reading about writers and writing makes one a better reader. The ladies at Eight Ladies Writing will inspire you if you aspire to write romance, or if you just love to read romance and enjoy a window into the creation of romance novels.
  • The Regency Redingote: My love for all things Regency is well-documented; reading The Regency Redingote makes reading the Regency a richer experience. So much Regency-era history and ephemera, sigh… I can waste hours on this blog.
  • Book’d Out: Shelley Rae (I hope I got the name right) at Book’d Out reads a dizzying array of books. She’s an Australian book blogger, and I like seeing what readers around the world are reading.
  • Shallowreader: Shallowreader is a very special romance reader: a librarian! Another Australian blogger, Shallowreader reads and writes about more than just romance. I enjoy her insights into reading as a librarian and her reviews.
  • SB James, Doing the Write Thing: Again, I love reading writers on writing, and SB James writes from a perspective that romance readers, especially, can appreciate: that of a self-published writer.
  • A Writer Afoot: Barbara Samuel (aka Ruth Wind) is one of my all-time favorite writers of Harlequin/Silhouette titles, and I also love her historicals and single-title romances. Her writer’s blog is inspirational and aspirational.
  • Amanda DeWees: Maybe I fibbed when I said there was no certain order to this list. I added Amanda DeWees’ site because it’s gorgeous, and for another reason you’ll have to read on to discover…

Upcoming Reviews!

I am making myself accountable to you, dear readers, this year: if I promise you I am going to review more books, I hope some of you will send me nasty messages if I fail to do so. I’ve got a backlog of vintage Harlequin, historical, and Gothic romances I need to work through, but I’m going to start by reviewing Amanda DeWees’ Nocturne For a Widow, which I posted a teaser for back in the good old days of 2014. Look for that review this week. As for the rest, I entreat you: don’t let me be lazy.

Happy 2015!


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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

Hideous Romance Novel Cover: Rainbow Magic by Margaret Mayo

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No, your eyes are not deceiving you — this book is actually titled Rainbow Magic, and yes, there are not one but two very creepy Mac Davis lookalikes on the cover.

Because things are not cray enough already, here’s the book synopsis:

Taryn scoffed at the village theory. How could a special rainbow bring about a change in one’s life? But when she saw it, she couldn’t help her growing excitement.

Her meeting with Luke Major immediately afterward was a distinct letdown… and a shock.

Luke was an exact replica of Taryn’s ex-fiance. And Taryn could do without the kind of changes he had made in her life!

And there’s more! Do go on over to Goodreads and read this hysterical review of this gem.

Oh, and just in case you don’t know who Mac Davis is, how’s this for context:

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