Sweet Rocket

Romance Reviews, Author Profiles and More…


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Friday Fun: What I Am Reading Right Now

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

What will you read this weekend, lovelies?


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Review: 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

Book Review: Impulsive Gamble by Lynn Turner

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Impulsive Gamble by Lynn Turner

Abbie knew that she was taking a risk, but it seemed to be a gamble that might pay off. Malachi Garrett, brilliant engineer-inventor, was so reclusive that hardly anything was known about him. Now here he was, in a bar in Oklahoma, looking for someone to drive his Shelby Cobra car in a race to Washington DC. As a freelance journalist, Abbie couldn’t pass up the chance.

Pretending to be a medical secretary urgently needing to read Washington, Abbie talked her way into being the driver. She found out too late that living a lie made her feel very uncomfortable and that she and Malachi Garrett made an explosive combination…

Rarely do we ever open a book with absolutely no preconceptions. We know a little about the story from a blurb, or have read a review, or picked the book up upon recommendation from someone whose taste we trust. It’s wonderful when the book aligns with those preconceptions, even better when it exceeds them. When neither happens, then you know how I felt after reading Impulsive Gamble.

Every review I’ve seen for this book is positively gushing. On Goodreads, the book gets slightly over four stars, which, though the book has few reviews, is still remarkable.

It’s possible that all this high-heavens praise created impossible-to-meet expectations, but although I enjoyed Impulsive Gamble, I was underwhelmed.

I loved Mal and enjoyed Abbie, and the cross-country endurance race plot is one I’d never seen in a romance. But there are holes in the plot big enough to throw a cat through, and problems with the characterizations that made even the book’s much-lauded sparkling dialogue between the two leads hard to swallow.

To wit:

  • Mal is an engineer and ex-racing driver who employs multiple mechanics, yet he can’t find anyone to drive the car? Please. The guy spends years and a chunk of change on this car, and trusts it to a complete stranger? Not in this lifetime — my baby is a lowly-but-sweet 1985 Chevy truck, and I can count on one hand the number of people I know who’ve been allowed to move it.
  • also — you don’t go out on cross-country endurance race without a mechanical crew behind you. It just wouldn’t happen, and there was no logical reason for it to happen here.
  • we’re told over and over by Abbie that Mal is such a male chauvinist, and yes, he often acts like one, yet he cooks, he cleans, he lets a woman drive his masterwork car and readily admits to being a reckless driver and terrible navigator. Never once does Abbie notice that he’s saying one thing and doing another completely, but we’re supposed to believe she’s a brilliant newspaper reporter. Right.
  • the back-and-forth arguing between the two was supposed to seem like foreplay, but sometimes it just seemed like instant replay.
  • the book’s ending (I won’t spoil it) is supposed to tie everything up in a neat bow, but leaves as many questions as it provides answers.

If it sounds like I’m being a little rough on the book, maybe so. But I actually enjoyed reading it just for Mal — he’s one of the best-written male leads I’ve ever come across in a vintage Harlequin/Mills & Boon.

Oddly enough, I think part of my problem with Impulsive Gamble was that Emma Richmond’s Heart In Hiding was so fresh in my mind. Heart In Hiding is a similar story, but with a much more believable trajectory and, in my opinion at least, a more enjoyable capable-female-meets-curmudgeonly-male story line.

I give Impulsive Gamble 3 out of 5 intact fan belts, one for the quirky plot, one for the high points the dialogue hits, and another for Mal.  I give Mal 5 out of 5 bags of pretzels.

Impulsive Gamble

Lynn Turner

Harlequin, 1989

Blurb’s the Word/Hideous Romance Novel Covers Two-In-One: Cautious Lover by Stephanie James

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It’s apparent that the hero is the cautious one here. No woman is cautious who’d put herself in imminent danger of being swept out to sea. No woman is cautious who’d wear that sweater. No woman is cautious who’s wearing that sweater to be swept out to sea in the company of a man who looks like “Burning Down the House”-era David Byrne.

Now I’m curious. Just what is this supposed to be about, anyway? Here’s the blurb:

LET SLEEPING DOGS LIE

Jess Winter always operated with a master plan, and Elly Trent found herself on schedule to marry him. He said she was everything he wanted: undemanding, reliable, tolerant—and she could cook! Elly wanted to scream. Jess claimed he wasn’t arrogant, merely assertive, as he rearranged her life to suit him—and herself, as well. How could she object when Jess gave her everything she wanted:?.. Well, almost everything.

Just once, Elly wanted to shake Jess’s iron control. She was no femme fatale, but there is little that can stop a truly determined woman. Bearding a lion in his den is never without consequences—but Elly hadn’t realized they could be so delightful.

Well, here’s a first. I feel like I know less about a book after reading the blurb than before.

Turns out that Stephanie James is one of Jayne Ann Krentz’s many many many pen names. And reviewers at Goodreads say this title hasn’t aged very well…

Cautious Lover

Stephanie James

Silhouette, 1986

We’ll just pretend like we never saw this hot mess and enjoy the Talking Heads:


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Book Review: Heart in Hiding by Emma Richmond

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The arrangement seemed ideal

It would keep Verity in France until her next teaching course — it would involve traveling to the pretty but remote village of Auray. 

Of course, her boss hadn’t outlined the drawbacks of working for his friend to whom he’d offered Verity’s services. Those he’d let Verity find out for herself.

An ex-racing-car driver, the wealthy and well known Corbin McCaid was an irascible man, encased in his own private world. Not that it mattered. Verity could cope with him, even if he did dislike her — she always coped.

First, a thousand pardons for that cover picture — it’s awful, and yet it’s the best (or most viewable) example of a cover for this book that I can find on ye olde interwebs.

That gives you one indication of what a hidden gem we have in Heart In Hiding. Like 98% of Harlequin/Mills & Boon category romances from back in the day, it has been relegated to the dustbin of history, all but forgotten.

But the dustbin of history is not a bad resting place for many 1980s-era Harlequin/Mills & Boon category romances. So many of them are populated by ridiculous heroines and borderline-abusive uber-alpha heroes and hinge on plots that seem so far removed from reality that it can be hard to take them seriously.

Reading the blurb for Heart In Hiding, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this book is an excellent example of the stereotypical 1980s-vintage Mills & Boon/Harlequin. We’re presented with the classic schoolmarm-y type thrown together with the ice-cold hero with the irrevocably wounded heart. Cue the angst.

Verity, however, is no schoolmarm, but a smart, no-nonsense corporate trainer, and if Corbin comes off as just another standard-issue Harlequin alpha jackass at first, then he quickly reveals himself as a socially awkward curmudgeon. No wonder, then, that Heart In Hiding reads so much like those wonderful romantic comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, like Palm Beach Story and His Girl Friday.

Richmond throws these two into funny but utterly believable scenarios that let them play off each other beautifully. It’s a case not so much of opposites attracting, but of two very-much-set-in-their-ways types learning to live with each other.

Sensible Verity has no idea who the “wealthy and well-known” Corbin is, and is nonplussed when it turns out she’s been hired to help him write a book based upon his experiences as a racing driver on location in France.

Everything that can go wrong does. Right out of the gate, they get lost — and quite naturally squabble — looking for the small French town where they will be staying. They arrive long after dark and inadvertently spend an amusing night in the wrong house. When they finally make it to the right house, Corbin (in a wonderful and wonderfully surprising anti-alpha way) turns out to be all thumbs on anything household or electronic, and basically tears up everything he touches. It’s Verity who takes the wheel, both figuratively and literally; one of the book’s best scenes comes when Corbin, as research for his book, ropes Verity into recreating a rally race with him. He says it’s to see what a completely clueless woman would do in such a situation, and does Verity ever show him.

This being a Harlequin, of course Verity is expected to pretend to be Corbin’s lady friend at least once. It’s to get his meddlesome mother off his back, yet another well-worn Harlequin trope. Wonder of wonders, but in this book, the trope actually makes sense. How Verity thinks she’s accomplished this is one of the book’s cutest passages, though we as readers know that by now, she and Corbin are so clearly made for each other that his mother needed no convincing. And surprisingly enough, Corbin’s mother is neither a dragon nor a snob, but an earthy, endearing character who does a lot to explain Corbin’s prickly personality.

The progression these two take from sparring partners to lovers is sweetly funny and perfectly paced. The only two sour notes the book strikes concern another Harlequin stand-by, the obligatory other woman, and the reason for Corbin’s retirement from racing. Of course Corbin’s vapid, beautiful and utterly heartless ex-wife has to turn up to create trouble and make Verity feel plain and boring. This adds little or nothing to the story. The wretched ex-wife also figures into Corbin’s retirement from racing, which could have been a richer plot point had the wife had nothing to do with it.

I thoroughly enjoyed Heart In Hiding.  I give it 4 out of 5 hairdo-destroying race helmets!

Heart In Hiding

Emma Richmond

Harlequin, 1990