Sweet Rocket

Romance Reviews, Author Profiles and More…


2 Comments

The Saga of Sara Seale and Maggy

houseofglass

The 1944 hardcover edition of House of Glass with its beautiful artwork.

There’s a very good reason that so many romance novels are retellings of classic fairy tales. Both fairy tales and romance novels exist in a realm of pure magical thinking where suspension of disbelief is the norm, fantastic characters can seem if not ordinary then sympathetic, and situations we’d never accept as possible or even attractive in real life are not only acceptable but somehow believable.

You need that kind of fairy tale mindset if you’re going to enjoy vintage Mills & Boon/Harlequin romances. If the author is Sara Seale, magical thinking is required.

Though she’s all but forgotten now, Seale was one of Mills & Boon’s earliest superstar authors. Most of her books were written and first published in the 1930s-1940s, when the worlds she creates were slightly more possible, and the characters who populate those worlds a bit less disturbing. Of the ten or so Seale books I’ve read, in all but one, the hero is much older than the heroine, and is usually in some position of authority over the heroine. Hers are the predecessors to all those boss-secretary and nurse-doctor romances that accounted for 90% of the Mills & Boon output from the 1950s through the late 1980s.

But Seale takes this tried and true romance formula to places I would never have imagined. Almost all her heroines are teenagers or just barely over 18, poor and very innocent. A good half of Seale’s books are 20th century updates of that Regency staple, the guardian/ward romance, and she seems to have been heavily influenced by the work of Jean Webster, famous for Daddy Long-Legs, that immortal story of the orphan who falls in love with her anonymous — and much older — benefactor. In one of Seale’s books, the aptly titled Orphan Bride, the hero, bitter and disappointed in love, actually picks the heroine out from an orphanage and places her with his aunt and uncle so that he might oversee the raising of his future wife.  

It’s a testament to Seale’s talent that she can make these cringe-inducing plots work almost as often as not. The best of her books — and there are several that are undeservedly forgotten gems — are coming-of-age stories, where we see the heroine through a year or more, growing from an adolescent into a woman, with the hero coming to love her as the woman she becomes.

But in all of Seale’s oeurve, House of Glass/Maggy stands as one of her more bizarre waif/older man stories. On the surface, it’s nothing readers of historical and Gothic romance haven’t seen a million times; that Seale wrote it as a contemporary in 1944, and Mills & Boon/Harlequin kept reissuing it as a contemporary as late as the 1970s is what makes the book such a curio.

Here is the synopsis for the book as it was issued in 1944, under the title House of Glass:

Maggy was young, alone in the world after her father’s death, untrained and too inexperienced to make much of a way in life; although she had a job of sorts, as companion/dogsbody to a tyrannical old lady, life did not seem to be holding out much of a future for her. Garth Shelton, years older than Maggy, crippled and embittered, was indifferent to anything that life might have in store for him. All the same he was touched by young Maggy’s plight – and in a quixotic fit he proposed marriage to her as the one way in which she could escape. And so began their strange life together – a marriage that was no marriage, between two people who might yet come to realise their growing feelings for each other, if only Maggy could forget the one barrier to Garth’s loving her – his former love, the elusive and lovely Sabrina.

“Don’t shut me out” she begged. “Please!” Maggy knew her words violated the terms of their relationship. But she was no longer the immature girl who had married Garth with no thought to the future. Even Garth had changed. He had thought nothing mattered, saw no reason to live. But the strange months of their marriage had revealed startling chinks in his armor of detachment. Could she now persuade him to grasp the one chance that might give them a full life together?

If it tells you anything about what’s in store for you when reading House of Glass, I was under the impression I was reading an historical Gothic romance (my mistake; it was a strange library edition of the late 70s Mills & Boon release that I picked this with a bunch of Gothic paperbacks at a library book sale).

Everything about the book screamed Gothic. The book’s early 20th century setting is so vague that, until cars are mentioned, it may have taken place at any time between 1820-1950. Maggy and Garth meet at an invalid spa in what might have been Harrogate or Bath in a Regency (all we lacked was a mention of taking the waters). I don’t remember Maggy’s age, rightly, but she’s definitely less than twenty, whereas Garth is maybe thirty-five.

At this point, the book becomes a cross between Rebecca and a guardian/ward romance; Garth whisks Maggy off to a draughty, isolated castle in Ireland, populated by maids who tell tales of banshees and a housekeeper who is devoted to the Sheltons — or the Shelton women, at least, of which Maggy will never be, so far as the housekeeper is concerned. On her way to her happily ever after, Maggy is disdained by most of the servants and Garth’s chilly relations, teased with hints and clues about the elusive Sabrina, led to a near-fatal drowning in a bog (yes, a bog) by the awful housekeeper, and almost led astray by a local boy who gives her the attention Garth will not (this, by the way, is another familiar device in Seale’s books — the near-seduction of the innocent by a fellow adolescent).

In the best of Seale’s books, the interactions between the hero and heroine build slowly but surely toward the HEA, and House of Glass is no different. The book lags in the middle, with Garth and Maggy not spending enough quality time together, but almost all the interactions between Garth and Maggy are memorable and poignant. If Maggy is irritatingly naive at times, and Garth snappish, they are most times so kind to each other.  Throughout the story, they’re always giving each other thoughtful little gifts, each symbolic of the way their relationship grows.

House of Glass definitely hits its stride toward the end, and if it never reaches anything nearing passion, it is precious. The book has one of the most unusual endings I’ve ever read in a romance novel, one that was not out of keeping for mainstream novels of the 1940s, but so unlike the usual M&B ending that it’s a wonder it was not revised.

Speaking of the period… As a contemporary, even for the 1940s, this book utterly fails. The clearly mid-century references — cars, telephones, Maggy’s lack of training for a job — are jarring and seem added after the fact. The medical diagnoses/treatments seem Draconian for even the first half of the 20th century. There are also a few strange ethnic references (something you unfortunately encounter often when reading vintage Mills & Boon books).

Which begs the question that is the next point of this rambling — and far too long — post: what on earth possessed Mills & Boon, to say nothing of Harlequin, to keep reprinting this book as late as the 1970s, and as a contemporary?

And Mills & Boon was indeed hellbent on marketing the book as a contemporary, going so far as to retitle it as the jaunty Maggy at least twice, with covers that placed the story squarely in the 1960s and 1970s.  The time travel was strange enough — the covers themselves were baffling.

maggyhouseofglass2 maggy2

For one Maggy cover, we have a mid-1960s collage that jumps on the nurse romance bandwagon, and has absolutely nothing to do with the story. For the early-1970s Maggy cover, our heroine has become a thirteen year-old hippie.

But the strangest cover by far is for a later 1970s edition of House of Glass. This was likely the cover that should have accompanied the library edition, and it’s interesting that even without it, I still took the book for a Gothic — it the classic hero-menacing-the-terrified-heroine Gothic cover. It also makes little more sense than the other post-1950s House of Glass covers. As Garth is wheelchair bound, it seems more than a little impossible that he’d be looming over Maggy; since the scene never happens in the book, it’s disingenuously random.

So there you have the strange saga of Sara Seale’s Maggy. As a final aside, this story was evidently dear to Seale’s heart — she repurposed the majority of the book’s content for one of her later novels, The Gentle Prisoner, which was also reprinted numerous times from the late 1940s through the 1970s.

To bring this train wreck to a smoking conclusion, I give Maggy/House of Glass four pieces of imitation Waterford crystal. If you are a fan of vintage Mills & Boon or Gothic romances, it’s worth hunting down.

Book Review: Impulsive Gamble by Lynn Turner

Leave a comment

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


Leave a comment

Book Review: Heart in Hiding by Emma Richmond

image

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