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Friday Fun: What I Am Reading Right Now

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

What will you read this weekend, lovelies?

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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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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.