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Am I the Only One Who Hates The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons?

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Paperback, 810 pages
Published September 8th 2009 by William Morrow Paperbacks (first published 2001)

The golden skies, the translucent twilight, the white nights, all hold the promise of youth, of love, of eternal renewal. The war has not yet touched this city of fallen grandeur, or the lives of two sisters, Tatiana and Dasha Metanova, who share a single room in a cramped apartment with their brother and parents. Their world is turned upside down when Hitler’s armies attack Russia and begin their unstoppable blitz to Leningrad.


Yet there is light in the darkness. Tatiana meets Alexander, a brave young officer in the Red Army. Strong and self-confident, yet guarding a mysterious and troubled past, he is drawn to Tatiana—and she to him. Starvation, desperation, and fear soon grip their city during the terrible winter of the merciless German siege. Tatiana and Alexander’s impossible love threatens to tear the Metanova family apart and expose the dangerous secret Alexander so carefully protects—a secret as devastating as the war itself—as the lovers are swept up in the brutal tides that will change the world and their lives forever.

I’m always saying that if everyone else raves about a book, I’m sure to be disappointed, but I didn’t think The Bronze Horseman could go wrong.

It’s a DIK on All About Romance, and is a fan favorite on the site’s message boards. It’s got a 4.3 rating on Goodreads, not that that is high praise at this point, but I digress. Plus, it’s so rare to find a romance set in WWII Russia that I thought the setting would offset the eventual letdown.

Alas.

Darlings, I’m sure I’ve read worse books than The Bronze Horseman. I’m certain I have. But The Bronze Horseman demoralized me.

So that you know just how low I’ve been brought, I’ll write this review in the style of The Bronze Horseman. 

POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD

At first we meet Tatiana. Tatiana is small, blonde, fragile, selfless, innocent, frail, a lover of poetry, tiny, a complete innocent who doesn’t know what she does to men, delicate. She often finds herself unable to stand up around Alexander because she has feelings, but she is resourceful enough to predict the Siege of Leningrad well ahead of time to buy extra bread and make croutons to sustain her family.

Tiny, small, fragile Tatiana! Those brutal tides just sweep and sweep her! During the course of the book she survives the following:

  • a train station suddenly bombed during which she buries herself under dead bodies;
  • the Siege of Leningrad, in which she nearly starves but for croutons and Alexander;
  • a terrifying evacuation to the country, during which she has to cross a frozen river at night with people dying all around her;
  • more starvation;
  • being stalked by a man with a “Russian face: broad, slightly washed out features, as if the colors had all run dry. His nose was wide and turned up, his lips extremely thin;”*
  • standing up for three days;
  • more walking in snow;
  • pneumonia;
  • TB. Yes. Tatiana had a slight case of tuberculosis.

Thank God there’s Alexander. Alexander of the ice cream and/or molasses eyes. He has all the medals for valor, and Tatiana wants him to rest, because he is so overworked. When he’s not bravely and single-handedly turning the Germans out of Russia, he’s also traveling great distances so that he can be on hand to save Tatiana from whatever late calamity has befallen her, be it a bombed train station or her abusive family.

But consummate lover that he is, Alexander pauses in his brave deeds long enough to take Tatiana’s virginity in a scene that includes such deathless dialogue as:

“Tania (Tatiana), you are too much for me. I can’t take you, not in small doses, not in large doses, not here, not on the street. Nowhere….”

“Shura (Alexander) I’m going to die.”

“No, Tatia (Tatiana).”

“Breathe on me…”

He breathed on her.

He’s a lover of such skill and passion that he brings Tatiana, who didn’t even know what intercourse was, really, to an earthshattering orgasm, possibly by caressing her nipples in circles. Her screams of joy are such that a nurse comes running to her aid. Because Alexander took her viriginity in the hospital bed where Tatiana’s laid up with broken ribs and a broken leg. 

Sometimes Tatiana resists Alexander’s herculean efforts to protect her from her own goodness and innocence, at which point he curses mildly, shouts loudly, punches a wall inches from her face, or screams things like “don’t make me more crazy!” before entreating her with sweet phrases like “this frantic wretch begs you, please leave!”

Like the war, The Bronze Horseman seems never-ending. Like the Energizer Bunny of awful books, it keeps going and going and going…

I didn’t think it was possible to write a boring book about the Siege of Leningrad and the Russian front, but I was wrong. I’ve ever read anything as mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly boring. Dramatic scenes — many very true to history — are buried in melodrama. Then additional melodrama is piled onto history and/or melodrama. Unnecessary scenes last past any reasonable point. Pointless, often repetitive dialogue, dripping with so many adjectives and adverbs, fills page after page after page.

The Bronze Horseman gets zero croutons. Tatiana gets zero ice creams. Alexander gets zero stars for valor.

*One of the most puzzling aspects of The Bronze Horseman is the depiction of Russians in general. Russian men are almost always drunken, abusive thugs. Russian women — aside from Tatiana — are almost always sluttish or stupid. Characters are described using “Soviet” the way you’d use a racial slur. The quality of the book makes it difficult for me to tell whether is intentional or just lazy characterization, so I’ll not pass judgment.

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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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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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Classic Review: The Cockermouth Mail by Dinah Dean

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

Was she a fool to believe in miracles?

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

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

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

A distinct “is this all there is?” is usually the result when I read a romance that reviewers gush about.

With that in mind, I was understandably loath to pick up The Cockermouth Mail. Dinah Dean’s Regency romance, first published in 1982, is touted as one of the best of the classic Traditional Regencies by Regency lovers on message boards and blogs throughout Romancelandia.

I prepared myself for disappointment. Penniless governess, returning soldier, a convenient stranding in an inn, a mystery involving a highwayman who’s robbing mail coaches — there’s nothing in The Cockermouth Mail I hadn’t seen a hundred times before.

But darlings, The Cockermouth Mail is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. It more than lives up to its reputation.

The mail coach is a common Regency trope for creating meet-cute and convenient stranding for the hero and heroine, but I’ve never seen a mail coach employed quite the way Dean does in The Cockermouth Mail. She uses the peculiar etiquette, the protocol and the actual operation of the mail coach as a hub, with the characters and plot as the spokes on the wheel. No character in the book, and very few of the plot points do not, in some way, come back to the mail coach.

The mail coach signals how far Dorcas has fallen in the world; she’s forced to find and pay for her own transportation to her new position, which leaves her purse light and her virtue in question. Other travelers on her journey notice, and occasionally judge her by her unchaperoned appearance on such a questionable conveyance.

The mail coach brings her together with Richard, a landed and wealthy soldier who’s been invalided out of service following the Peninsular Campaign. The continual delays in the journey, due to weather, allow Richard to realize that Dorcas is unable to pay for a meal and thus learn the reasons for her destitution.

The mail coach strands them at an inn where the travelers, forced to spend Christmas in a strange town, celebrate as best they can, a particularly bittersweet happenstance for Dorcas, who knows she’s enjoying a last bit of freedom for the duration. The roads to Cockermouth are impassable for most of the winter, see, it will be spring before another mail coach returns.

You’d be forgiven if you reach this point of The Cockermouth Mail and think,  “Yes, the mail coach is cute, but this surely this leads to nothing more than the usual shotgun wedding following an unavoidable indiscretion.”

Well, yes and no. There were several stages in the book (see what I did there?) where I fully expected Richard to act accordingly and offer for Dorcas’ hand. You even see him on the verge a time or two, but there are a few other tropes to get out of the way first.

All the most gifted authors in a genre as convention-bound as the Traditional Regency find a way to use familiar constructions as building blocks. Dean does that brilliantly, and the best example is Richard’s hidebound hero-with-a-limp-or-other-imperfection inferiority complex. You keep waiting for it, but it never appears until the mail coach overturns during a sudden snow storm. Richard cannot travel on foot with the rest of the group. Dorcas, who is already beginning to recognize her feelings for Richard, stays behind with him to await help. The storm intensifies, Richard’s disability renders him helpless, and the consequences are nearly fatal for both he and Dorcas. It makes for reading that’s harrowing and touching by turns, and afterward, one can easily understand Richard’s resistance to his growing affection for Dorcas.

But as with all the best romances,  the resistance is the sweetest part. Richard and Dorcas are both lovely, and each encounter between them is imbued with burgeoning awareness and real affinity. All the while, Dean is deftly building toward a baited-breath climax and an HEA — including one of the few epilogues I can say truly adds to the story — that these two characters deserve.

The Cockermouth Mail could have easily become Dorcas and Richard’s Tale of Woe but it never does. The darker themes of the book are leavened by humor at almost every turn, much of it surrounding that infamous mail coach. It’s the best Traditional Regency I’ve read in a long time, and I can’t recommend it enough.

I give The Cockermouth Mail – book and coach route – five horses that do not bite or kick at the traces. (Richard and Dorcas get five hot brandy toddies and five snuggly blankets!)

 


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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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Review: Margot Early’s “The Keeper”

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

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

In some cobwebby corner of my mind, I associated Margot Early with a book I’d read in college, one that I had always meant to track down. Miss Bates’ post jogged my memory, but it still took some sleuthing to match a title with the Early book I sought, which turned out to be The Keeper.

Before you go any further if you are someone who detests spoilers, please stop reading. There is no way I can write about The Keeper without revealing a key part of the plot that is shrouded in mystery for most of the book.

That disclaimer out of the way, here is the book’s synopsis:

keeper. n. 1. one who protects, guides, cares for 2. person or object worth keeping 3. a “hole” in a river rapid 4. a romance novel the reader’s going to put on her “keeper” shelf!

Zachary Key married Grace Sutter because he loved her–and because he needed a Green Card. That devastated Grace. When she returned to Moab, Utah, to take over her father’s Colorado River outfitting company, the marriage was effectively over.

Now, more than a year later, Zac reenters her life. And Grace discovers that something disturbing happened to him after she left–something he doesn’t completely remember. She also discovers how deeply they still love each other ….

Does their marriage stand a chance? Is Zac a keeper–or does he need one?

After you’ve read this book in its entirety, that last sentence will strike you as incredibly insensitive.

To expand upon that synopsis, Grace and Zac meet in New York City, where they are coworkers, Grace being a sous chef (maybe — I’m a little hazy there) and Zac a waiter looking for acting jobs. They have a whirlwind courtship and marry. Zac’s behavior starts to subtly change, and when Grace’s father becomes ill and she must return to Utah, Zac does a disappearing act. In light of their hasty marriage to aid his immigration status, Grace assumes he only married her for the green card and writes him off, heartbroken.

In the year between their separation and their reunion, Zac’s career has taken off. When he shows up in Utah to answer the divorce papers Grace has filed —  and to shoot a movie —  it’s clear that these two have unfinished business. But he won’t tell her what precipitated his disappearance, and Grace is left to find out the hard way that Zac is suffering from mental illness.

When I read The Keeper in the early 2000s, it was as a selection on a list of popular fiction titles for an assignment in a social work class. The professor had chosen these books for their depictions of mental illness and its treatment, either realistically or unrealistically. I claimed The Keeper because, as a romance novel, I assumed it would be a short, easy read, thus allowing me to quickly return to my regular schedule of hell-raising, and because I assumed I could trash it for being unrealistic.

On the first count, I was right. For college reading, The Keeper was a relatively light read (though for romance, it’s heavy going). But on the second count — realistic/unrealistic portrayal of mental illness?

As best I remember the assignment was to respond to questions about the book’s portrayal of mental illness. Here’s that assignment, paraphrased and simplified:

1. Are the symptoms of the mental illness depicted realistically?

Zac has two acute psychotic episodes in The Keeper. The first begins just as Grace is leaving for Utah, and the signs — fixation on his immigration status, paranoia — are subtle enough that it’s easy to see how she misconstrued them. The second happens more than halfway through the book. The reader, and Grace, to an extent, see that something is coming, but the circumstances — Zac is a Method actor filming a movie under grueling conditions — have allowed Zac to mask the problem until a harrowing river rapids shoot triggers a psychotic break. It’s an affecting read; experiencing Zac’s perspective during his breaks is chilling, and Grace’s helplessness is almost as heartbreaking.

2. Is the treatment depicted realistically?

I have read several romance novels where mental illness is portrayed, and I have to say The Keeper is the only one where the hero or heroine isn’t cured by love alone. Early pulls no punches in her spot-on depiction of Zac’s treatment. Zac is forcibly restrained and medicated. He refuses treatment, and is hospitalized under a court-ordered 72-hour psych hold, some of which he spends in a padded room. He’s not magically cured, either; his career depends upon his ability to emote, and Zac’s struggle to overcome both the psychotic break and the slurred speech and flat affect that result from the medications he takes as part of his treatment are deftly-handled.

That being said, the particulars of Zac’s problem are a little hazy. Early never conclusively identifies Zac’s diagnosis, and that may be because The Keeper is, in the end, a Harlequin romance novel, and therefore requires both a happy ending and a specific page count. Heavy diagnoses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder would throw a definite shadow over Zac and Grace’s HEA, and they’d also need more exposition than even a Superromance could provide. A qualified happy ending is doable, but I feel that the book would probably have worked better as a single title, where the fallout from Zac’s illness could be better explored.

Where Early excels is in showing the shame, the secrecy and the confusion that go hand-in-hand with mental illness. Zac refuses to seek treatment in New York, even when it becomes clear even to him that something is wrong, because he fears that the stigma of mental illness will result in his being deported. He is ashamed to reveal his condition to Grace, and carries a copy of the diagnostic manual for mental illness with him to Utah, fixating on his symptoms all the while he’s telling himself that he’s okay. Some of the contributing factors to his mental illness are explored, and his career choice in light of his diagnosis is touched upon. He and Grace both struggle with anger and confusion about his condition and the impact it has on their future.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the book is an angsty, depressing read. The Keeper is as effective as a romance as it is in its depiction of Zac and Grace’s struggles. Romance, to me, is always in the little things that couples share — favorite songs, gifts, rituals they create — and Early does an outstanding job of creating a tangible bond between Zac and Grace that is strong enough to overcome the obstacles they face.

I’m so glad that serendipity — and Miss Bates — brought The Keeper to my attention again. I’ll probably Amazon this, and highly recommend anyone who’s interested in this book to do the same. It’s well worth hunting down. If you can’t find a copy, read it on Open Library. I found the book there and skimmed it again for this post.

I should also add that in unearthing this book, I discovered that there is a sequel, the story of Grace’s sister Day and their coworker Nick, both of whom make appearances in The Keeper. That one’s called Nick’s Kind of WomanThat’s a singularly dumb title, but I’ll probably check it out, anyway.

The Keeper gets 5 love coupons. Zac and Grace both get 5 love coupons, too. 


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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