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Open Library Find of the Week: Puppets by Jenna Ryan

I hope that when you read that cover blurb, you hear it in the voice of that guy who does all the voiceovers for movie trailers…

If you still haven’t checked out Open Library, what in the world are you waiting for, honeybun? A treasure trove of books both new and old are just waiting there for you! You can read them in a browser, on your tablet/smartphone/clay tablet-smartphone or on your (Adobe Digital Editions-equipped) ereader. FREE. 

I love Open Library for its mind-boggling selection of long out-of-print paperbacks. You truly wouldn’t believe the number of old Harlequins, Silhouettes and Signets available. I’ve whittled my infamous Amazon Wish List down by hundreds, no kidding.

Which brings us to today’s find, Jenna Ryan’s Puppets How I came across this gem is a story in and of itself: I had a vague recollection of being stuck in a rented vacation house once and reading a Harlequin with a hero and heroine who meet in a Jim Henson’s Workshop-like  puppet factory setting. Turns out that Puppets is not that book, but when I read this description, I was sold, anyway:

He stalked her…
Hiding behind the gothic columns of the famed Paris Puppet Theater, Raul Sennett watched her. Katarina Lacroix was a vision of beauty and perfection as she performed onstage, mesmerizing the audience as a human puppet. He didn’t know how much longer he could wait to touch her, to be with her.
Returning to his underground lair beneath the century-old theater, Raul cursed the dank vaults where he lived. The world of darkness and isolation had become his home, hiding him from the world above.
In the shadows, secrets lurked — secrets that were the key to his freedom. And only one woman — Katarina Lacroix — could unlock the demons that were buried there. For Raul, they had to be unleashed. No matter what.

Just in case you’re laboring under the illusion that this book is not batshit crazy, have a look at these helpful inserts at the beginning of the book (all apologies for quality — it’s hard to extract these from Open Library):

puppets1

puppets2

When you need a map to a boarded-up room, a vault and a hiding place, plus fair warning that you’ll meet characters with bizarre obsessions, deadly jobs, and unnatural fascinations, you know you’re headed for nuclear-level insanity. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty excited right about now.

No, really. I’ve actually read several Jenna Ryan books, and have never been less than entertained. It’s almost as though she sets out to write the craziest books ever, and yet she has just enough talent to keep you from howling the whole time. She’s Anne Stuart-lite — seriously bizarre settings/plots, but without the genuine air of menace that Stuart usually delivers. 

I will be checking back in with a review, so sit tight…

Puppets

Jenna Ryan

Harlequin, 1992

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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


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Classic Gothic Romance

In today’s A Very Gothic Week post, we’ll revisit some Gothic authors who are considered the forefathers — er, mothers — of the genre. From Charlotte Bronte to Mary Stewart to Barbara Michaels, here’s a sample of a few of the Gothic Romance genre’s best-known names, so wrap yourself in a fringe-y shawl and prepare to run screaming from a big dark house!

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre was hardly the first Gothic romance, but it’s the first modern classic of the genre. Employing nearly every convention that has come to be associated with the genre — the first person narrator, broodingly attractive hero, big scary house, terror and fright — Jane Eyre is the direct antecedent of nearly every Gothic romance that came afterward. While much of the Gothic fiction of the 18th and 19th centuries has lost favor with modern audiences who find the dense, often stilted language hard to parse, the timeless beauty of Bronte’s prose and a plot that’s still fascinating has assured Jane Eyre enduring popularity.

Gothic romance didn’t disappear in the century after Jane Eyre, but it went underground, emerging with a dark and stormy vengeance with the novels of Daphne Du Maurier, whose mid-20th Century classics Rebecca and Jamaica Inn introduced a whole new generation of readers to Gothic drama. Du Maurier’s books found wide audiences both in print and on screen; Rebecca and Jamaica Inn were both made into widely successful films during the 1940s.

 

British author Mary Stewart’s contemporary Gothic tales ushered in the era of the modern Gothic romance in the 1950s and 1960s, paving the way for the contemporary Gothics that flooded the market in the 1960s and 1970s. Her best known novels, Nine Coaches Waiting, This Rough Magic, The Moon Spinners and Madam, Will You Talk?, captivated readers with their exotic international settings, plots packed tight with mystery and mayhem, and the spare, elegant prose Stewart perfected.

No list of classic Gothic Romance authors would be complete without the inclusion of Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr, the two pen names used by Eleanor Hibbert when writing Gothic Romance. Hibbert, a veritable cottage industry who wrote around 200 historical novels, many under the name Jean Plaidy, sold over 60 million books as Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr, a number that leaves no doubt about the ubiquitous nature of the Gothic Romance during the 1960s and 1970s. While the novels wrote under the Carr pen name are largely neglected, several of those Hibbert wrote as Holt have achieved classic status in the Gothic Romance genre, including The Bride of Pendorric, Mistress of Mellyn, and The Shivering Sands.

Dorothy Eden’s books were initially marketed as historical romantic suspense, but as Gothic Romance gained popularity, many were republished as Gothics. In some cases, this was less-than truth in advertising, as a number of Eden’s books actually were true historical fiction. Darkwater, An Afternoon Walk, and Ravenscroft are among her best Gothic romances.

Barbara Michaels’ Gothics gained popularity during the mid-1970s and early 1980s, coinciding with the last gasp of the Gothic Revival. As contemporary and historical Gothics gave way to bodice-rippers and category contemporaries Michaels (the pen name of Elizabeth Peters) tweaked her Gothics to make them fit into an emerging genre, romantic suspense. However, during her heyday as one of the last greats of the Gothic Revival, Michaels produced some classics of the genre, including House of Many Shadows, Witch, and Wings of the Falcon.

A short list, I know — so tell me who I neglected!


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A Very Gothic Week — The Art of the Gothic

It’s difficult to have any real discussion of Gothic genre novels without some mention of the sometimes gorgeous, often lurid, occasionally both at once cover art that was featured on many of these books during the 1960s-1970s Gothic revival. These books and their fantastic cover illustrations are so beloved by paperback collectors that the covers alone have several blogs dedicated to their appreciation (more on that later). Here’s an assortment of classic Gothic romance novel covers, brought to you by the incomparable Book Scans database:

Take care with your cockles, dear readers.

While most of the Dark Shadows’ volumes from Paperback Library featured stills from the TV show, this one has an artistic rendering of Victoria Winters. This could be due to the fact that several actresses played the character of Victoria Winters throughout the show’s original run.

As though the figural skull were not unusual enough, note that this Gothic’s author is proudly male. While many men wrote Gothics during the 1960s-1970s, most did so under female pseudonyms.

At Avon, Satanic Gothics are a subgenre, clearly identified by the satanic skull emblem on the cover. Discuss.

Jane Toombs, who is still writing romance, broke the mold by introducing an African-American heroine to Avon’s Gothic line.

I wish a better image of this beautiful cover were available.

Another gorgeous Avon Gothic.

Not sure if this Georgette Heyer Bantam is a Gothic or no, but it’s being marketed to the Gothic audience.

A Bantam example of that great 1960s-1970s Gothic romance tradition, the woman running from a house. This one is also a good example of a horror/fiction novel being repackaged as a Gothic to take advantage of the Gothic’s huge market share. Wonder how Richard Matheson felt when he saw that his Hell House had suddenly morphed into a Gothic, complete with woman running from Hell House? 

Some books were simply repackaged as Gothics when the genre became hip.  Theresa Charles’ “Happy Now I Go” got a whole new title, the much more Gothic-sounding “Dark Legacy.”

Shew – thank heavens this Dell woman running from a house has a key to the forbidding gate…

Freer’s Cove is so engrossing, in fact, that the woman in this Dell is unable to run from the house and instead becomes part of the landscape.

If all these women running from houses, renamed happy books and brave Gothic-writing men have whetted your appetite for more information about vintage Gothic paperbacks and the people who love them, you’re in for a treat. There are two absolutely wonderful blogs, Women Running From Houses and My Love Haunted Heart,  dedicated to vintage Gothic paperbacks and the artists who drew the bizarre and compelling art for these books. Check them out – you’ll never look at a big, creepy house without wanting to run from it again.


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A Very Gothic Week: Dark Shadows and the Gothic Novel Genre

Not by design, but just in time, anyway, this has become A Very Gothic Week here at Sweet Rocket. Yesterday was a review of the fabulous new gothic novel Sea of Secrets by Amanda DeWees. Today is Dark Shadows day.

Unfortunately, today’s post is inspired by the passing of Dark Shadows legend Jonathan Frid, who portrayed Barnabas Collins, arguably the most revolutionary vampire of the 20th century, on the gothic soap during  Dark Shadows’ original late 1960s-early 1970s run. Dark Shadows, and Frid’s characterization of Barnabas Collins in particular, transformed the popular notion of the vampire, turning vampires into romantic, heroic characters rather than horror movie monsters along the lines of Frankenstein and Mr. Hyde.

Dark Shadows did more than just turn Frid’s vampire and co-star David Selby’s werewolf Quentin Collins into sexy romantic leads. Despite its inauspicious beginnings as a half-hour afternoon soap, Dark Shadows became a cultural force, inspiring movies, comic books, records, and an entire genre of books, the Gothic novel.

One of the most popular and enduring of the cottage industries that sprung up around Dark Shadows’ characters was a series of Gothic paperback novels. According to Paperback Library, 33 Dark Shadows books were published between 1966 and 1973. All were authored by Canadian Dan Ross, but published under the pen name Marilyn Ross. Aside from House of Dark Shadows, which was a novelization of the movie of the same name, the Dark Shadows books were a series which featured an alternate storyline/history to that portrayed on the television show.

Like the show, the Dark Shadows books were written in the Gothic vein, although they did not always hew to the conventions of the Gothic-style first person narration and tight focus on the main character/narrator. More Gothic mystery than Gothic romance, the books fell into two categories: the early books featuring a mystery centered on a different Dark Shadows character with each volume, and the later books, which focused on Barnabas Collins and Quentin Collins as a sort-of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, solving paranormal and/or evil villian mysteries.

It’s not pure conjecture to state that Dark Shadows helped fuel the Gothic novel vogue of the 1960s and 1970s. The Gothic genre, which had fallen in and out of fashion like hemlines since the late 1700s, became a big deal in the wake of Dark Shadows’ success. While authors such as Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart had found success with their Gothic romances, publishers began to buy up Gothic stories in droves during the height of Dark Shadows’ popularity.  Many paperback publishers created lines especially for Gothics (including Paperback Library, which published the Dark Shadows novels), and Gothics became so popular during this period that the genre actually featured sub-genres, including historical Gothics, contemporary Gothics, paranormal Gothics, romantic Gothics and Gothic mysteries.

Meanwhile, Dark Shadows covered much of the same territory as the Gothic books published during (and after) its run, featuring mystery storylines, historical storylines set in the Victorian and Colonial periods and romantic storylines in addition to the show’s contemporary paranormal storyline. How influenced authors of Gothics were by Dark Shadows’ storylines and vice-versa is anyone’s guess, but it’s interesting to note that  Dan Ross – writing as Marilyn Ross, Clarissa Ross and Ann Gilmer, amongst other pseudonyms – published over 300 books (including the Dark Shadows books), many of them Gothics, during the 1960s and 1970s.

But as Dark Shadows’ fortunes went, so did the popularity of Gothic romances. After the cancellation of Dark Shadows in 1971, Gothics managed to hang on to their foothold in the paperback market for several years, but by the end of the 1970s, publication of Gothics had dwindled dramatically, supplanted by the surge in popularity of historical romance, especially that unique 1970s-1980s sub-genre of historical romance, the bodice-ripper. Many authors who’d first found success writing Gothic novels, including Barbara Michaels and Anne Stuart, moved on to subvert Gothic themes into romantic suspense or standard mysteries, while others, such as Mary Kay Simmons, moved on to bodice-rippers or other romance genres. Others simply drifted away.

The current popularity of paranormal romance would seem to create the perfect atmosphere for another Gothic revival, but alas. The one publisher that consistently published Gothics through the 1990s-2000s, Dorchester (under the Love Spell and Candleglow imprints), closed its physical doors in March of this year, and it remains to be seen whether it will survive as an electronic publisher.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, as Amanda DeWees’ wonderful Sea of Secrets has proven. Enduring Gothic classics, such as those by Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt, remain in print. E-books and self-publishing have revived many long-dead genres and writers who’d been unable to find a home with publishers.  There’s also hope that many of the 1960s-1970s Gothics may be republished as e-books; perhaps Gothics will experience the same e-book renaissance as older uber-traditional Regencies, which had slowly been phased out by publishers looking for books with more graphic sexuality and third-person narration, and are now re-emerging in e-book format. Belgrave House, which sprung up just to republish out-of-print books in e-book format, has done a wonderful job of bringing traditional Regencies back, and is beginning to add a few Gothics, as well.

If nothing else, maybe the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Dark Shadows reboot due out later this year will give new life to this sadly neglected genre. Long live Gothics!


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Rediscovered: Theodora Keogh

The mid-century novelist Theodora Keogh’s disappearance  from the popular consciousness demonstrates the difference between books and literature, best-sellers and perennial favorites. Popular fiction – and nonfiction, for that matter – is rarely classic fiction. For every John Updike or Cormac McCarthy, there are dozens of Taylor Caldwells and Cynthia Freemans whose books, for better or for worse, sell well during their era, but are largely forgotten within just a few years. The fact that these books slowly fade from our literary memory is not necessarily an indictment of their quality (although in many cases, it is). Rather, it’s the confluence of several factors: a style that falls from popularity, an author whose momentum is lost, or a subject that seems dated within several years of publication.

Any combination of these factors have acted on Theodora Keogh’s books over the years. Her writing is elegant and modern, even if the pulpy subjects of her books — adolescent girl’s adventures on the mean streets of New York, bored housewife takes brutal lover…

Never mind — let’s read the publisher’s blurb on the back  of Keogh’s The Other Girl:

“She came to Hollywood looking for the answer to the strange hunger in her blood. But not until she met Betty, the tantalizing, voluptuous slut, could she put a name to the passion that was consuming her. The tragic drama of their encounter unwound against the sordid backdrop of Hollywood’s prostitutes and procurers, misfits and rejects–and then exploded in a shocking, and inevitable, climax. “

Contrast that breathless litany with an excerpt from the book:

Almost everyone wore pompadours that year, especially around Hollywood.  Even the men seemed to have a stiff upward swirl on their front locks in timid but stubborn imitation. It was 1946 and World War II was pronounced over.  The West Coast, the sprawl of suburbs around Los Angeles seemed especially suited to this uneasy peace. The crack of atomic doom was like a ringmaster’s whip, forcing to a prance both young and old alike. But Marge did not feel a part of these frantic posturings. No pompadour for her… looking down now on the scurrying women she felt a wave of contempt for those female bodies…

Ah, you know Marge’s contempt does not bode well. After all, you’ve read Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann, so you know that a hard nut like Marge is never going to coming to any good.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the lurid nature of many of Keogh’s books, the author is going through a renaissance of sorts right now. For some inexplicable reason, all of her books are available on Amazon in ebook format for $1.00 each.

There’s a schizophrenic quality to Keogh’s printed output that makes it easy to see why her best fiction was neglected, while the freak-show pulp books fell by the wayside. Keogh writes with a strange, sometimes uncomfortable intensity; an everyday exchange between two young girls in Meg takes on huge proportions, while in the excerpt above from The Other Girl, Marge establishes herself as a less-than sympathetic narrator within the first chapter through her contempt and coldness toward other women. In the best of Keogh’s books, such as Meg and Street Music, this quality in her writing makes for indelible portraits of ordinary people in bizarre circumstances. But this quality lends itself all too well to the type of pulpy sensationalism that Keogh often wrote, like The Other Girl, The Mistress and The Double Door. Because Keogh was an artist of her type, the line is sometimes so blurred, the veering between ugliness that’s real and ugliness for ugliness’ sake so whiplash-inducing, that she produced a couple books that are either genius or pure trash — The Fascinator is one of these.

Ostensibly the story of a rich New York housewife who falls in love with the Fascinator of the title, a famous sculptor (named Zanic, no less), The Fascinator could almost be a companion piece to The Feminine Mystique, so striking is the similarity between Ellen, the protagonist, and Betty Friedan’s middle class housewives consumed by their ennui. Yet it wouldn’t be a Keogh book if there weren’t disturbing, predatory elements to Zanic that sometimes push the book into pulp territory. In this way, it’s almost an inspiration to The Feminine Mystique, predating that book by ten years (The Fascinator was published in 1954), and unwittingly giving Friedan a cautionary tale for all the bored women whose good educations and bright imaginations have led them into adultery and dissolution rather than careers or creativity.

Keogh authored only a handful of books between the publication of Meg in 1950 and her final book, The Other Girl in 1962. While it’s doubtful that her rediscovery and republication in e-book format will vaunt her books into the American literary canon, Keogh is nonetheless worth reading.