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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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On Regency Tropes (Plus a Review of Gentleman’s Folly by Cynthia Bailey-Pratt)

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This book’s so obscure, this is the best image I could find of the original cover.

One of the top ten lines people use when dismissing romance novels is inevitably if you’ve read one you’ve read them all. Well guess what? The same can be said of sitcoms, Sci-Fi books/movies/TV shows and even reality TV shows. Hell, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood made careers of making the same Westerns over and over.

And yet…

I do most of my romance reading in the Traditional Regency and Regency historical genres, and there are times when I just want to read something… different. No rakes, no Almack’s, no obligatory meeting in the library in the dead of night. But Carla Kelly and Elisabeth Fairchild can only write so many books, bless their hearts, which means I spend a lot of time reading synopses and gnashing my teeth, because they all sound so much the same.

Take for instance Gentleman’s Folly by Cynthia Bailey-Pratt.

Here’s the book’s synopsis, courtesy of Goodreads:

THE STUNNING STRANGER
Jocelyn Burnwell lived in the everyday world of housekeeping and looking after her rather mischievous cousins. But one day she helped save a dashing, mysterious gentleman’s life. And her world changed forever.
Who was this elusive Mr. Hammond, this master of disguise and man of a thousand unanswered questions? Jocelyn knew only that he carried with him a letter from Napoleon; she didn’t know that the fate of England depended upon Hammond–or that she was about to embark on a grand and treacherous adventure! As she left her docile life behind and set forth with this intriguing hero, she also felt a stirring in her heart–of a love without rhyme or reason….

That is the synopsis for the original 1991 Jove edition of Gentleman’s Folly. When the book was reprinted in e-book form by Regency Reads, it got a slightly different synopsis:

Jocelyn Burnwell was caring for her mischievous cousins in her domestic world when she saved a stranger’s life. Mr. Hammond turned out to be a master of disguise who had a letter from Napoleon—which could determine England’s fate. So Jocelyn set out on an adventure with this dashing, mysterious gentleman—an adventure that would change their lives.

These are the kinds of synposes that make me want to cry, composed of strings of the pernicious cliches that bedevil Traditional Regencies and Regency-set historical romances. These two examples are particularly egregious, so much so that one could be excused for assuming that Bailey-Pratt is funning us. That she’s written the ultimate farce on the Regency genre. After all, almost every Regency trope is present and accounted for, including:

Mischievous Cousins — when I see “mischievous cousin,” my mind reads irritating plot moppet. Plot moppets are the locusts of the Regency, and usually appear either  to serve as a plot device to draw H/h together or to make “kids say the darnedest things” remarks revealing wisdom beyond their years. The good news is, plot moppets most often conveniently disappear altogether for pages and pages at a time, then pop up when the plot needs them. Hate ’em.

Master of Disguise — all I despise more than a mischievous cousin is a master of disguise. Unfortunately, they’re thick on the ground in Regency romances. Cue the: A. heiress posing as a governess; B. the gently-bred lady passing as a boy for nothing more than a pair of nankeens and a bit of binding; or C. the spy posing as a fop, complete with thirty watch fobs and quizzing glass. Heiresses posing as governesses and spies as fops are one thing, but the woman-dressed-as-a-man trope takes the prize for my least favorite disguise, simply because it’s so rarely done well or believably. 

Letter From Napoleon (indicative of spy status) — if there had been as many spies at work during the Napoleonic Wars as show up in Regencies, there would be a lot fewer Regency romances, because the war would have been dispatched with posthaste.

Unless, of course, they were Regency romance spies, who are often fooled by women dressed as boys and all too willing to drop whatever intrigue they’re pursuing when they meet the heroine. Suddenly there is absolutely no urgency about their errands, and they almost always trust the heroine (almost always a stranger) implicitly from first glance. Somehow, however, they’ll manage to remember the intrigue in time to wrap it up in the last quarter of the book.

Fate of England Depends Upon (Insert Hero’s Name Here) — as common as the spy in Regency romance is the military hero or the duke-who-simply-cannot-abandon-his-responsibilities-at-home-but-contributes-to-the-war-effort-by-doling-out-Very-Important-Advice who manages to have the fate of the nation upon his broad, manly shoulders.

If he’s a military hero, you can bet that he’s Wellington’s right-hand man, or that Wellington would be nothing without him. If he’s a spy, he’s the best in the business and has the one bit of intelligence that will change the course of the whole war. If he’s a peer, then Lord Castlereagh doesn’t make a move without consulting him first.

As if having the fate of the nation on those manly shoulders were not impressive enough, these heroes are almost always to the manor born, so to speak. We’re inevitably told that military heroes bought commissions just to join in the war effort, which of course means they had no training or practical experience prior to the war. They’re just natural born leaders, understand. Likewise spies often need no more than a good French accent to glean all the information they need to save the nation — everything else is managed by sheer force of will and personality.

The Lords SuchandSuch are clearly savants one and all.  Little else can explain how they gain all this wisdom they impart to Castlereagh, considering their relative youth (they’re rarely more than a shade over 30, if that) and all that time spent dodging matchmaking mamas at Almack’s or Vauxhall Gardens. It’s a good thing they are always so humble about everything, and never but ever want anyone to know just how much Castlereagh relies on them. Otherwise they’d just be insufferable.

A Grand and Treacherous Adventure! — otherwise known as a semi-valid workaround for the constricting mores of the day.  There were few legitimate opportunities for unmarried females to be in the company of men of no familial relation during the Regency period. Young, unmarried ladies required constant supervision, you know, or else they’d forever be haring off on some Grand and Treacherous Adventure! just to have an excuse to be alone with a suitable hero.

Said Grand and Treacherous Adventure! will usually involve some combination of these elements:

1. some dire family emergency/attempt to thwart a Gretna Green marriage/on-the-lam run from an evil guardian;

2. a road trip in an overstuffed mail coach with fellow riders who assume the H/h are married and coo appropriately;

3. only one room at the inn, which means automatic compromise to the heroine’s reputation (as though disappearing off the face of the earth with a real or would-be rake wasn’t the outside of enough);

4. the inevitable shotgun wedding when the heroine’s family, oddly absent/generally uncaring during this whole Grand and Treacherous Adventure!, finds out she’s been compromised and demands she be wedded.

Points are awarded if the heroine (or a plot moppet) also does something(s) adorable but stupid which blows their cover, endangers their lives and results in them losing every last sou.

So far, it’s not looking good for Gentleman’s Folly, but something compelled me, and I pressed on.

Little in the first chapter impressed me. Before we’re five pages in, Jocelyn, our heroine, has dressed as a boy to divert the authorities from catching that mischievous cousin of hers, Arnold, who is the world’s most precocious poacher, hit a constable over the head with a gourd and generally behaved like featherbrained girl. Hammond, despite being injured in the line of spy duty, has to rescue her from a soldier who claims she pickpocketed him. Although she must needs divest herself of her cousin’s coat to rinse Hammond’s blood out before it stains (yes, you read that right) and to bandage him up (though she neglects this duty until he all but begs her to), he still never notices she’s a girl. Granted, he is busy stuffing that all-important letter from Napoleon into the lining of her coat, for reasons I’ve still yet to understand.

As Bailey-Pratt is a veritable encyclopedia of Regency cliches, throughout the course of the book, we are treated to, in no certain order:

  •  a huge cast of family members and neighbors that are sometimes hard to keep straight;
  • the snobbish, interfering local Grand Lady who is just waiting for Jocelyn to prove unseemly;
  • kindly, wonderful servants who aid and abet most of the schemes, including the housekeeper who shapes up everyone on the place;
  • a village of less than 4000 people (yes, it’s enumerated) full of spies and ne’er-do-wells;
  • a secondary romance between a beautiful but slightly dense friend and a devoted swain;
  • rank strangers who are more than glad to help this odd lot as they go about their Grand and Treacherous Adventure!;
  • more coincidences than Prinny has mistresses.

But despite all this, it works.

Yes, it works. It works beautifully. Bailey-Pratt manages to employ almost every stock element known to exist in Traditional Regency romance, and in doing so proves how some of these familiar Regency tropes became popular.

The unworldly country-bred heroine is one of the Traditional Regency’s most frequent flyers, right up there with the poor downtrodden heroine forced to live off the charity of her relations, and at first blush, Jocelyn seems no different than a hundred other similar heroines.

Then she surprised me by refusing to fall head over heels for Hammond within the first three chapters. More surprising still, when she does begin to feel a distinct stirring of feelings for the rogue, she shrugs it off as nothing more than an exciting change from the usual humdrum. Her feelings for him develop in intriguing fits and starts as he reveals himself as kind, funny and honorable.

Jocelyn is so refreshingly normal. Sometimes she’s stubborn and silly, but mostly she’s just a harried young woman left in charge of her relatives’ ramshackle household. Not only is she not Mary Poppins-esque in her complete mastery of all domestic tasks, she’s often the opposite — she lets her cousins’ rooms go to dust and moths and allows the youngest to accumulate a nice coating of dirt that she cheerfully tells him needs drowning to remove. The only fault I found with Jocelyn is that she’s often no more than a linchpin, the still point of the action that’s going on around her.

Then there’s Hammond. I almost cringed when he quickly identified himself to Jocelyn as a spy, and not only because I thought of course he trusts her implicitly, despite barely knowing her. I waited for him to prove out to be a sorry excuse for a spy, but wonder of nine days’ wonders, Hammond is indeed an actual working spy. With results both comic and exciting, he spends (or wastes, depending upon his mood) days trying to flush out the villains at work in Jocelyn’s village and get back the famous coat and the letter inside.

It soon becomes obvious that he revealed himself to Jocelyn just to play upon her youth and trusting nature, something he’s not above doing several times in the book. He’s also not above letting someone else come to her rescue if he’s got bigger fish to fry. He’s got a job to do, and if he just so happens to encounter Jocelyn as he does it, great. If not, she’ll just have to wait. And he really is a master of disguise — Bailey-Pratt’s descriptions of the subtle ways he changes his appearance are delightful.

If it sounds like Hammond’s a first-rate cur, trust me, he’s not. He never gets anywhere near compromising Jocelyn, but neither does he always try to exclude her from the action Because She’s a Female and Must Be Kept Safe. By the end of the book, even I was believing him as the Spy That All Other Spies Admire and Wish to Be.

Which brings us to the plot moppet, Arnold. He’s the most wonderful awful boy, sort of a cross between Opie Taylor and Dennis the Menace, always up to no good. But it’s no wonder — poor kid’s being raised by wolves who routinely leave him with Jocelyn and a rotating cast of housekeepers who leave within hours or days. He lies, he carouses, he wants candy. Jocelyn no longer dreams of having children of her own for fear they will be like Arnold, and Hammond sums him up best by saying that while he can appreciate Arnold, he’d rather not have one just like him, since he likes sleeping at night.

Even the lesser cliches are employed with the utmost care. The Grand Lady really isn’t that bad — she’s nursing a surprising tendre is all. Not all the coincidences are quite so coincidental, after all, when it’s all wrapped up at the end. And if everyone this ragtag bunch meets on their Grand and Treacherous Adventure! is shockingly helpful, then it’s likely because they, like us as readers, just seem to be enjoying these characters so much.

So why does a book, built as it is like a house of Regency pattern cards, work so well? Bailey-Pratt uses these tropes as touchstones, rather than let them do the work of creating characters and plot.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of the cliches that Bailey-Pratt and so many others use in Regency romance. They are no more cliched, in fact, than any other romance novel cliches. If we automatically roll our eyes when we see these stock elements in a Regency novel, then it’s because we’ve so often seen them abused.

Well-worn tropes are the lazy author’s best friend, the writing equivalent of a paint-by-numbers kit. By using stock characters like the rake, the country-bred ingenue, the foppish dandy and the matchmaking mama, the author bypasses the difficult job of character development. We all recognize these characters, and have a mental picture of them ready to slot in to the author’s space. Framing the story around familiar plot points and situations achieves the same goal. 

Trust that I am not damning Cynthia Bailey-Pratt and Gentleman’s Folly with faint praise, because this is a book I have returned to time and again, though I still don’t know why. I give Gentleman’s Folly 5 stolen kisses, Hammond 5 hats to employ in various guises, and Arnold 5 pieces of lint-and-dust-free candy. 

One last thing about Gentleman’s Folly:

I have absolutely no idea how I came to have this book on my old Aluratek e-reader, but it’s been there three years or more. It wasn’t recommended to me. I didn’t find out about it from a review, because the only review I could find when I wrote this was one I posted at Amazon.  I didn’t buy it from Amazon, either, or it would be on my Kindle. It’s a mystery to me.

Also — no apparent reason for this book to be titled Gentleman’s Folly, and can someone please help me understand why so many books I love have awful covers? The only element in the original cover for this book that has anything at all to do with the story is the cane the erstwhile Hammond is holding.

Gentleman’s Folly

Cynthia Bailey-Pratt

199 pages

Jove (1991); Belgrave House/Regency Reads (October 12, 2010)

Like Traditional Regencies, sweeting? Try these:

Marriage of Mercy by Carla Kelly

The Country Gentleman by Fiona Hill


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Book Review: With This Curse by Amanda DeWees

There’s a curse at work here, all right. The kind that makes a book impossible to put down.

It’s no secret that I love a true Gothic romance better than almost any other romance genre, but the problem is finding new ones to read — discovering a well-written Gothic published since Gerald Ford was in office is almost impossible.

And then there was Amanda DeWees, who has, in the course of just two years, managed to publish not one but two wonderful Gothics. I considered the first, Sea of Secretsa revelation. Her latest, With This Curse, is even better.

Without further ado, here’s the synopsis, courtesy of DeWees’ website:

In 1854, seventeen-year-old chambermaid Clara Crofton was dismissed from Gravesend Hall for having fallen in love with Richard Blackwood, the younger son of the house. Alone in the world, Clara found a tenuous position as a seamstress, but she always blamed the Gravesend curse for the disaster that had befallen her—and for Richard’s death soon after in the Crimean War.

A proposal…

Now, more than eighteen years later, Richard’s twin, Atticus, seeks out Clara with a strange proposal: if she will marry him and live with him as his wife in name only to ease the mind of his dying father, Atticus will then endow her with a comfortable income for the rest of her life. Clara knows that he is not disclosing his true motives, but when she runs out of options for an independent life, she has no choice but to become Atticus’s wife.

A deception…

For Clara, returning to Gravesend as a bride brings some triumph… but also great unease. Not only must she pretend to be a wellborn lady and devoted wife to a man whose face is a constant reminder of the love she lost, but ominous portents whisper that her masquerade brings grave danger. “This house will take from you what you most treasure,” her mother once warned her. But the curse has already taken the man Clara loved. Will it now demand her life?

As I was reading With This Curse, I thought over and over of how Dean James of Mystery Scene summed up the death of the 1970s Gothic Revival:

A fair number of [1970s-era Gothics] featured dimwitted heroines who went into that proverbial dark room at the head of the stairs with no thought to the danger within, and if they had been murdered, well, it would have been little more than they deserved.

I thought of that observation not because Clara is dimwitted, but because it crystallized the secret to With This Curse’s success — making the danger Clara faces real.

Just as I raved of Oriel from Sea of Secrets, Clara is a rare worthy successor to that grandmother of all Gothic heroines, Jane Eyre. We still talk about and read Jane Eyre today because Charlotte Bronte created a heroine that didn’t blunder into the proverbial dark room with no thought to danger, but because she was pushed into it.  Every time she steps into the dark room — becoming a governess at a house with a bad reputation, marrying Rochester, running away from Rochester — it’s because of the limited choices available to her as an impoverished, unmarried woman. That’s the horror of Jane Eyre. 

That’s also why With This Curse works so well. The book is so well-grounded in the setting — mid-Victorian England — that it’s easy to understand why Clara, too, goes to the dark room by agreeing to marry Atticus and return to a house where she has known little but unhappiness. So few so-called historical romances truly make the reader understand the limitations women faced in less enlightened eras — probably because we wouldn’t read them if they did — that when these limitations are used to create real drama in the plot, it’s surprising and refreshing.

WARNING: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD

It’s not just Clara’s plight that DeWees employs to create the almost stifling sense of doom that pervades the book. DeWees ratchets up the mystery in the book by imbuing the commonplace with portent. DeWees proves that you don’t need mummies rattling chains to make a horror story — Victorian England is scary enough.

Women who stray from the straight and narrow come to terrible ends. Children are mistreated as a matter of course. The hero’s congenital physical imperfection is seen as a mark of a curse, as is an ancestor’s madness. Atticus’ cretin of a father, in keeping with the ghoulish-to-us Victorian obsession with mourning, collects death masks. Neither the mystery that’s at the heart of the story or the other weird happenings that create a spooky atmosphere are supernatural; rather, they are horrible for how natural they are, how easily they could happen during the Victorian era.   

Which is not to say that With This Curse is a joyless slog. As with any DeWees book, you are treated to beautifully written prose, excellent plotting and great characterization.

Clara is prickly, but in the best way possible, and like Jane Eyre, is witty and perfect in her imperfections. She’s a little older and wiser than most Gothic heroines, which makes her even more fun to read. Atticus quickly became one of my favorite Gothic heroes. He’s one of few heroes in the genre who is genuinely funny, kind and delightful, even as he struggles with the ghosts that haunt Gravesend Hall. Not Scooby Doo ghosts, mind you, but the real ghosts that haunt any home — memories and long-standing family dynamics that can stir up more trouble than a whole passel of the bedsheet variety of ghosts.

The romance that develops between Atticus and Clara is believable and touching; they complement each other so well, with Clara’s dryness the perfect foil to Atticus’ sweet vulnerability. They are both misfits, in their own ways, and it’s easy to see how these two are drawn together, and you are really rooting for their HEA.

I should end this review right here, but I can’t without mentioning Clara’s career as a seamstress for a famous stage actress. The brief foray we’re given into the Victorian theater world is fascinating, and for someone who could usually care less about suchlike stuff, the descriptions of the dresses are so engrossing — you owe it to yourself to visit DeWees’ Pinterest page to get an idea of Clara’s work.

I give With This Curse 5 out of 5 creepy death masks. Atticus gets 5 jaunty walking sticks, while Clara gets 5 dresses of her own design, sewn by someone else!

Enough of my yammering. Just read With This Curse already. But make sure you have several hours to kill, or don’t have anything to do tomorrow, because you won’t be able to put it down.

With This Curse

Amanda DeWees

Published 2014

Available at:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

And when you’re done, read Sea of Secrets if you haven’t already!


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Tiny Little Goodreads Review: Susanna and the Spy by Anna Elliott

Susanna and the SpySusanna and the Spy by Anna Elliott

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Susanna and the Spy melds two of the romance’s best subgenres — the gothic and the traditional regency. While the book has the Napoleonic War setting and slow-burn sensuality of the Traditional Regency, it also features many of the conventions of the Gothic: woman in peril (in this case almost-governess, penniless Susanna), a family estate complete with unexplained deaths and a mixture of kind and not-so-kind family members, a dark, dangerous, very evocative hero and a mystery to tie it all together. It’s Victoria Holt crossed with Elisabeth Fairchild, what with Ms. Elliot’s fluid, lovely prose and the excellent story. You’ll love getting to know Susanna, and fall in love with James, the book’s hero, right along with her.

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Goodreads Review: Lady Elizabeth’s Comet by Sheila Simonson

Lady Elizabeth's CometLady Elizabeth’s Comet by Sheila Simonson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Have you ever read a book once, and thought meh, then went back again and found it a totally different book? That’s me and Lady Elizabeth’s Comet. 

Part of my problem when first reading Lady Elizabeth’s Comet was, unfortunately, Lady Elizabeth. Lady Elizabeth is as near to an anti-heroine as you’ll find in a Traditional Regency. She’s short-tempered and snobbish, often treating the hero (and various other characters in the book) unkindly or dismissively. Interested more in astronomy than the people around her, it seems amazing that Lady Elizabeth could somehow attract not one but two suitors, her father’s heir, Tom Conroy, Lord Clanross, and Clanross’ close friend, Lord Bevis.

But as it turns out, some of the same pejoratives I applied to Lady Elizabeth applied to me as a reader, at least on my first go round with Lady Elizabeth’s Comet. If you stick with the book long enough to make friends with Lady Elizabeth, you’ll find she’s also funny and smart, and eventually all-too-aware of her own shortcomings. 

I won’t spoil the book for you by revealing which of her suitors Lady Elizabeth chooses, but I will say that although Lady Elizabeth is one of the least romantic female leads I’ve ever personally encountered, the romance that develops almost painfully slowly over the course of the book is delicious.  It will remind you more of an Austen romance than even a Heyer romance.

I find myself returning to Lady Elizabeth’s Comet  when I’m burned out on trite or trope-filled Traditional Regencies, or just want a great example of everything that is wonderful about the Traditional Regency genre.

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Review: Lord of Vengeance by Tina St. John/Lara Adrian

The new e-book “cover” for “Lord of Vengeance”

If the e-book revolution has done one thing for romance readers (aside from making us less ashamed of reading romance), it’s the fact that it’s given new life to hard-to-find and out-of-print romances, helping bring buried treasures into the the light. I can think of no better example than Lord of Vengeance by Lara Adrian.

Here’s the Amazon synopsis:

Taken captive by Gunnar Rutledge, a dark knight sworn to destroy her father, Raina d’Bussy must teach forgiveness to a man who knows no mercy and lives only to exact revenge on his enemy. But time in Gunnar’s keep stirs an unwanted passion in Raina, and something far more perilous, when she finds herself falling in love with the one man she should never desire.

For Gunnar, vengeance is all that matters. He seeks the ultimate price from his enemy’s beautiful young daughter, claiming Raina as his hostage. But the proud beauty defies him at every turn, tempting him like no other. Setting out to break Raina’s glorious spirit, Gunnar instead finds himself bewitched by her goodness, her strength. Can he seize the justice he is due without losing Raina forever?

Lord of Vengeance made quite a splash when it was originally published under Adrian’s pseudonym, Tina St. John, in 1995. The book won the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award for Best Medieval Romance of the Year, and was a HOLT Medallion Finalist for Best Historical Romance of the Year. But like all save a select few romance novels, within a few years the book was out of print, and largely forgotten.

Lara Adrian, however, went on to write a number of paranormal romances. Now, she’s brought the medieval romances she wrote as Tina St. John back out in e-book format. Since I missed Adrian/St. John’s books the first time around, I’m so glad to have found them now.

I have to confess I’m not a big fan of medieval romances, so I’m not sure why I decided to buy Lord of Vengeance, but I’m glad I did. Adrian/St. John takes a number of the romance conventions that have been done to death, especially in medieval romances  — the revenge romance, the kidnapping romance, the big secret romance — and makes them both believable and entirely new.

Gunnar’s obsession with avenging his parents’ death and his own terrible experiences at the hands of Raina’s father is understandable, but Adrian/St. John never lets the obsession veer into crazy; although he’s been damaged by his past, there are several times in the book when Gunnar himself begins to question his motives, as he begins to see how d’Bussy has changed and aged in the years since he murdered Gunnar’s parents. Adrian/St. John also eschews that other romance convention related to revenge — blaming the child for the sins of the father. Gunnar never allows his hatred for d’Bussy to color his feelings for Raina.

The kidnapping, however, dovetails perfectly into Gunnar’s plans for revenge, and never seems forced (pun intended). In more romance novels than I care to count, a kidnapping serves only to sequester the heroine and hero for a period of time, so that they can realize how perfect they are for each other, and there’s rarely any but the merest hints that the victim is uncomfortable or distressed. While Gunnar and Raina do come to love each other while she’s in his keep, Adrian/St. John is careful to show Raina’s discomfort and anger at being held against her will.  Although Gunnar never mistreats Raina for no reason, in more than one instance he’s compelled to treat her less than politely, and Adrian/St. John handles this well, and, in turn, so does Raina.

Much of the plot of the book hinges on two big secrets that I won’t reveal for fear of ruining the book, but, again, unlike in many romances, the secrets are both believable and understandable, and, rarer still, serve to make the book’s two villains more human and more frightening; to me, a villain must have legitimate motives in order to be truly scary — evil for the sake of eeeeeeeevil is just cartoonish.

On top of all that, there’s the sheer beauty of Adrian/St. John’s prose. Here is one lovely example:

But he saw her face at every turn, felt her softness in the brush of the summer air, smelled her essence in the waft of heather rolling off the hills. The sound of his name on her lips lingered in his mind… She was under his skin and in his blood, and he could not deny it.

Lord of Vengeance is one of the best romances I’ve read in months. I give Lord of Vengeance 5 romps in the forest, and Gunnar gets 5 sprigs of heather, for remembrance’s sake. 

Lord of Vengeance by Lara Adrian/Tina St. John

Print Length: 329 pages

Publisher: Lara Adrian, LLC (April 11, 2012)

Did you like Lord of Vengeance, sweety-pie? Then check out these books that are similar to Lord of Vengeance:

The Devil of Kilmartin by Laurin Wittig

A Winter Ballad by Barbara Samuel