Do romance novels have to have a plausible premise?
I ask this because so many don’t, in my experience. Every once in a while I go outside my preferred reader zone and assay one of the genres for which I have little affinity (these would be romance, horror, westerns, and pretty much all nonfiction!), because as a readers’ advisor I need to keep up with what’s current and have some titles ready to suggest, no matter what my personal preferences. So, after finishing the mammoth undertaking that was Demon Copperhead (see previous post), I decided to go for something light and frivolous.
My chosen book was When A Scot Ties the Knot, by Tessa Dare, a part of the “Castles Ever After” trilogy (which isn’t a series but rather a rough grouping of similar stories). I actually looked up a different book on Goodreads, but one reviewer said that in her opinion that one was a rip-off of this novel, and cited Dare’s book as the better read, so I believed her and switched. Ironically, all through this book I kept thinking, Ripoff? Yeah, of Outlander. The Scot in question spent the whole book calling the object of his affection “Mo chridhe,” which is a Jamie-ism if ever I heard one. No, I know Jamie Fraser was not the first to use that expression, but you have to admit that has become a signature phrase for him, along with “Mo nighean donn.” Also, the whole forced marriage thing…whoops!
On to the implausible plot: Madeline Gracechurch is shy. In fact, her introversion goes far beyond that—she suffers panic attacks in crowds. So when her family plans to send her to London for the Season, where she has to mingle with hundreds of people at balls and actually talk to men with a view of marrying one, she panics. She makes up a suitor that she supposedly met while in Brighton on vacay, but not just any suitor: He’s Scottish, he’s a Captain in the army, and he’s away at war. So obviously she has no need to go to London, because once the war is over, her Captain MacKenzie will come for her.
This begins a years-long deception in which Maddie writes letters to Captain MacKenzie and sends them off to the front…and receives letters from him in return, because after all, it would be a bit suspicious if he didn’t write back! There is no explanation of how she manages to arrange for the return letters, especially in someone else’s handwriting other than her own, but this is just the first (although admittedly most egregious) of implausibilities. The next is a much bigger surprise: Captain MacKenzie, the remainder of his men in tow, shows up at her castle in Scotland (she inherited it from her godfather), letters in hand, and informs her that they will be wed forthwith so that his men will have a place to live, their lands having disappeared while they were away fighting for the Brits, and if she won’t marry him, he will expose her deception.
So…how did Logan MacKenzie receive the missives Maddie expected to end up in the dead-letter box? Well, apparently the British mail system within the armed forces is just that good! (Anyone surprised by that?) Even though he wasn’t a Captain but a lowly private when she first began her correspondence with him at the age of 16, the letters somehow found their way to him and yes, actually inspired him to work hard enough over the subsequent years to make the rank of Captain a reality.
All those letters, though, that Maddie received in return—not a one of them was from him. He collected all of hers…but never had the impulse to write back and say, Um, who exactly are you, why are you writing to me, what the hell, young lady? Nope. But he saved all of hers with the plan to confront her and demand her hand in marriage on his return.
Then, however, she makes him mad: She kills him off! Well, it had to come sooner or later, because what would happen should he never show up to claim his bride? So she pretends to have received news of his demise, wears mourning for a year or two, and blithely goes about creating a career for herself as a naturalist’s illustrator, drawing pictures of plants and bugs for prominent researchers and publishers.
Then the big surprise, in a blue and green kilt, shows up on her doorstep.
I suppose that romance is a genre in which you are expected to willingly suspend disbelief in a major way, but there was so much potential for holes in this one that I laughed out loud several times as this farce unfolded. It’s not a bad book, and she’s not a bad writer, especially as regards the steamy scenes when they are working up to consummating their hand-fasting. But Maddie’s subsequent frantic search for the letters—Logan’s tool of blackmail—and Logan’s maintenance of his mad-on because she killed him off became increasingly ridiculous, since it was patently obvious that she had fallen for all of his many charms, and he for hers, pretty early on. The book was basically an exercise in drawing out the anticipation for sex between the two.
One funny note that falls under reader serendipity: After I finished this silly story, I picked up a rather dark and convoluted mystery by Ann Cleeves, only to discover that its protagonist was also a naturalist’s illustrator. How weird is that?
Time out for lighter fare
After reading that somewhat grisly dystopian, I have been in the mood for less intensity; I picked up and started reading two separate fantasy books—one a continuation of a series I loved last year, the other a stand-alone quirky one that’s been on my TBR list for a while—and couldn’t get into either one. So I went instead for a combination of relationship reads and light mysteries.
First up was An Island Wedding, #5 in the series of books Jenny Colgan set on the island of Mure, in Scotland. It was lovely to be back with a cast of familiar characters in a magical (not literally, just in terms of pristine scenery) place where I have enjoyed previous stories so much. In this one, Flora and Joel are finally to be wed; but Joel, product of a violent childhood followed by a long line of foster homes, doesn’t seem to “get” what it means to Flora, only daughter of a large and affectionate family and member of an extended community to which she has belonged since birth, to have a traditional wedding. Unmeeting wishes become exacerbated when another “daughter” of the island, a glamorous trend-setter, decides to hold her wedding on Midsummer’s Eve (the same day as Flora’s) at the grand hotel Flora manages, and Flora has to put up with Olivia’s overboard plans while being distinctly underwhelmed by her own. Since it’s Jenny Colgan, you know that it will all work out, but it’s fun to experience it along with your favorites. There is also movement in a side story involving the island’s immigrant doctor and its favorite schoolmistress.
After listening to a student in my readers’ advisory seminar wax poetic about Beach Read, by Emily Henry, in last week’s book-talk for the class, I picked that up and read it one more time, and enjoyed it again by noticing different things this time through. I do have to agree with Taylor, though, that neither the title nor the book cover is appropriate, considering the beach in question is the shore of one of the Great Lakes in Michigan, and it’s mostly too cold to go there for more than 15 minutes! And if the title was meant to reference one of the books that the two author protagonists were writing, that was off base as well. Still a good read, though.
Then I jumped back to the mystery series I started at the recommendation of a librarian friend a few weeks back, and read the next two books in the Andy Carpenter legal thrillers by David Rosenfelt, First Degree and Bury the Lead. I am continuing to enjoy these, despite my initial reluctance to tackle a legal mystery series. As another person on Goodreads commented, Rosenfelt (i.e., his character, Andy) is “quick with a quip,” and I am enjoying the mix of humor, exasperation, frustration, bafflement, and creative thinking that seems to propel him towards the solution of these mysteries. I do wonder how many more books in this series Carpenter can sustain by presenting a defense of SODDIT (“some other dude did it,” acronym made famous by Dismas Hardy)—his clients can’t all be the victims of frame-ups…can they? But so far he has done it well…
Given my preoccupation with the last few weeks of my readers’ advisory class combined with some recent health challenges that make me tend to lose patience with long, intricate narratives, I may keep reading this kind of distracting, pleasurable fare for the rest of this year! We will see if the mood turns…but in the meantime Andy Carpenter #4 (Sudden Death—he’s fond of the sports metaphor) is next on my list.
Reverse the trope
We’ve all read the book or seen the (probably Hallmark) movie: The protagonist is a successful young executive of a major corporation; his assets include a tasteful wardrobe, a midtown rent-controlled loft, a sports car that screams big money with every rev of its engine, and the perfect girlfriend, from the top of her sleek chignon to the tips of her Louboutins. She shows up to work every day at the publishing house or the art gallery, dressed in a pencil skirt and crisp white blouse, manages her business with a firm hand while terrorizing her subordinates, and at the end of the day orders Thai take-out, because she never bothered to learn to cook. Everything in their mutual world seems well ordered and meant-to-be, if a bit regimented.
Then our man is sent by his employer to a picturesque small town, probably to either acquire or shut down some competing business, and while he’s there he meets her: The One. She is the antithesis of everything he thought he wanted—she has long, curly hair, wears sundresses and flip-flops, and is earnest about protecting her home and family from the rapacious big-city villain. Despite apparent incompatibilities, they fall in love, and the young executive suddenly decides that giving up the city for the country, the tense 60-hour work week for the laid-back life of a construction worker/baker/shepherd, is the way to go, if only he can be with his true love.
And of course he is also giving up the city girlfriend, the icily perfect career woman whose urges and drives he once wholeheartedly shared. He pretty much dumps her without compunction, and that’s the last we hear of her in this story, because it’s all about his renaissance as a man of the people living in a one-horse town and making babies with his soul mate.
In Book Lovers, by Emily Henry, Nora Stephens is that woman—a literary agent known as the Shark for her ruthless bargaining on behalf of her clients—and she has been summarily dumped for the country girl not one, not two, but three times. So when her beloved younger sister, Libby, comes up with the idea of a sisters’ vacation, a month’s retreat to Sunshine Falls, North Carolina, Nora acquiesces for the sake of spending time with her sister before Libby is subsumed, yet again, into motherhood with the birth of her third child, but has no illusions about the lure of the small town. She is a city girl, born, bred, and determined to remain.
Libby has other ideas: She has designed the trip as a transformation for Nora, and hopes to lure her away from her business-first attitude to become a more well-rounded person with an actual personal life. (It’s hard to love again after the multiple humiliations, so Nora puts it all into her job.) Libby has visions of Nora picnicking with a hunky country doctor, but instead, almost the first person Nora encounters is Charlie Lastra, a handsome but surly editor who rejected one of her clients’ books a couple of years back, thereby earning Nora’s abiding dislike. What he is doing there in Sunshine Falls is just one of the mysteries Nora finds herself confronting as she tries and fails to find any redeeming qualities about rural bliss. She misses the coziness of her apartment, the sound of car horns, and her Friday night Tom Yum Goong, and nothing is going to keep her from them, beyond this month-long time-out. But Libby (and maybe Charlie) have other ideas about Nora’s fate.
I have to say that I loved this book unreservedly. The clever ploy of turning the cliché upside down and telling the story of the city “girl” who was (repeatedly) left behind was brilliant, but only the first of the twists and turns this story takes as Nora explores the depths of her inner self and makes some surprising but not at all clichéd discoveries. And it certainly didn’t hurt that with protagonists who are a book editor and a literary agent, the story revolved around books. I loved the characters, the setting, and the emotional energy, and wanted to read it all over again the minute I rather hastily finished it (not being able to shut off my Kindle until 2:17 a.m. when I arrived at the last word).
I enjoyed two other books by Emily Henry, but when I reviewed them I used words like “meet-cute” and “feel-good,” and while I extolled the witty banter and the chemistry between the protagonists, I also saw the predictability inherent in those two wish-fulfillment stories. Book Lovers is different—I wouldn’t call it a parody, but it certainly has those moments, and the point isn’t the happily ever after but the acquisition of self knowledge. There is also both banter and romantic sizzle, but they aren’t exactly the point—or at least they are far from being the main or only one.
I don’t always have a lot of respect for either romance or relationship reads in terms of their originality or their ability to hold my attention, but this one was a five-star.
In case you don’t get the reference: In the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, portions of the state of Florida used a punch-card type ballot that was easily misread; during the furor that followed the initially indeterminate election, the public soon became familiar with references to hanging, dimpled, and pregnant “chads,” which were the little pieces of the punch-card that were, in theory, supposed to be removed by the punch tool, but instead either hung by a corner or, worse, looked like they had been pressed on with intent, but not punched out. The recount in Florida resulted in a bunch of wrangling, with many lawsuits and counter suits between the parties, until ultimately Gore conceded, although he had won the popular vote. It’s a controversy to this day, and one wonders on what trajectory our country would be now had Gore, and not Bush, become President.
I reference it here because I just had a reading experience that reminded me of the bewilderment of the Florida election officials trying to discern the intent of the voters by interpreting the various states of chads.
You will recall that at the beginning of July I decided to go beyond her Bill Slider mystery series to explore the other genre of author Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, by reading the first book in a new series, The Secrets of Ashmore Castle, an enjoyable Upstairs / Downstairs, Downton Abbey read-alike. In that review, I mentioned that the ending was “somewhat abrupt,” and bemoaned the fact that the sequel wouldn’t be available for more than a month. Well, I have just completed the sequel—The Affairs of Ashmore Castle—and it is this that has given me the unsettling feeling provoked by hanging chads!
Lest you should think I am panning the book, I am emphatically not—I quite enjoyed it. In fact, the deepening stories of all the main and subsidiary characters provided an even richer and more involving experience than did the first book in the series. The various marriages and matches made in the first volume by the ruling classes were developed and took interesting turns, the world of the servants likewise became more transparent, and I followed all the story lines with anticipation. That anticipation carried on up to the very last page, when one character asks another, “What do you really come here for, Lady Alice?” and, swiping my finger impatiently across the face of my Kindle to turn the page and discover the answer, I was instead treated to Amazon’s “Before You Go…review this book” prompt! I was in such disbelief that that could possibly be the end of the book that I actually went back to the beginning, checked the number of chapters, and clicked on the last one to see if there had been some glitch with my Kindle that had caused the last third of the book to disappear!
Nope. She really did end it there. She used the last few chapters to set up some truly urgent situations with both the “upstairs” and “downstairs” protagonists, and then left them all hanging, or dimpled, or pregnant, and JUST. STOPPED. WRITING. I haven’t been this disconcerted since I read Connie Willis’s gargantuan time travel duology, Blackout and All Clear; at the end of Blackout—or I should say, where Blackout stopped—I looked up articles about the two books and discovered that Willis had originally intended it as one gigantic tome, but that the publisher convinced her she must split it in two (the first book being 491 pages, while the second is 656, published within nine months of one another). And split it in two she did, with no warning, no wrap-up, no transition whatsoever—book one simply stopped on a page, and book two took up on the next page. It made me nuts.
What makes me even more dissatisfied with the abrupt stoppage of the Ashmore story is that I read the second volume a mere day after it was published, and will presumably have to wait a year (or more, depending on what other series she has on the boil) to discover the fates of all involved! And by then I will have read so many books in the meantime that it will probably mean a reread. Sigh. You wound me, Ms. H-E.
I am a mystery reader, and I specifically enjoy British mysteries, although I have read my share of others. So I am always looking out for a new Brit-based series, and somewhere along the way I discovered the Bill Slider detective novels by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. They don’t seem to be terribly well known here in the States—I never see recommendations for them on any of the reading pages to which I belong—and the American version of the books is usually poorly designed and cheaply printed, with ugly art, crap paper, and inappropriate typefaces! But it’s such a fun series that I have persisted from the first—Orchestrated Death—to #21, Headlong, which I just completed, and I see that there are two more awaiting me, which happened while I wasn’t looking (i.e., teaching Young Adult Literature and reading for that).
They are police procedurals in the truest sense: Although Detective Chief Inspector Bill Slider is definitely the lead guy, he has under him a team of versatile and memorable officers, all working together to solve the homicides that come their way. From his main prop, Atherton, a literate, clever, fashionable ladies’ man, to the lowliest “plod” on the force, all have distinct personalities and specialties, and we are granted a multidimensional vision of the crime, the suspects, and the process through their eyes.
But lest the books be too concentrated on the whodunnit, Harrod-Eagles has also provided both Bill and many of his colleagues with lively and interesting partners, children, and private lives, which figure largely into each story in various ways.
She also has a wicked sense of humor and has created the higher-ups as wholly original versions of bureaucratic cliché; for instance, Slider’s direct superior, Porson, is the master of malapropism, and delivers twisted versions of every idiomatic proverb in the book, providing Slider and his minions with an ongoing challenge to keep a straight face while the reader is free to hoot with laughter.
This latest fulfilled its challenge of keeping the reader guessing. Ed Wiseman, a prominent literary agent, has apparently fallen to his death from the window of his study into the dug-out building site next door. Slider is assigned the case, but has been cautioned that Borough Commander Carpenter would like to see this quickly ruled an accident and quietly put to bed; it seems a young woman who was involved with the victim is also somehow related to the Commander’s wife, and he wants to keep any scandal out of the papers. But when the verdict is not accident but murder, Slider has to pursue a slippery group of clients, friends, ex-wives, romantic partners, and rejected authors in his quest to solve the crime, while assiduously avoiding involving the girl, who seems increasingly central to the case.
As with most of the rest of the series, this one is intricately plotted to realistically showcase the varieties of police work necessary. It’s also filled with red herrings, puns, wordplay, and humor, and continues to unfold the personal lives of the main characters with glimpses into their family dynamic. I’m glad to pick up this series again, and won’t delay long before moving on to the last two unread volumes.
The interesting thing about Cynthia Harrod-Eagles is that she is not specifically known for this series, and says that she wrote the first book as relaxation between other projects, with no intention of publishing it. Her “real” metier is historical fiction, and her reputation is tied to a massive effort called The Morland Dynasty, which began as 12 volumes that were to cover a 500-year period of British history, but evolved into 35 books as she discovered she wanted to spend more time (and pages) on the fictional characters embedded in the history. Outside of this mammoth family saga, she has also written other historical fiction, contemporary novels, a couple of fantasy books, and a dozen romances, with a total of more than 90 titles!
After enjoying the Slider mysteries, I wanted to read and experience something else she had written, but I didn’t want to embark on anything like a 35-book endurance test, so I chose the first book in a new series, The Secrets of Ashmore Castle, which seems to be a cross between historical fiction and romance with perhaps a whiff of the gothic (the description brought Victoria Holt to mind, although Harrod-Eagles’s prose is far more accomplished and the characters and plot more complex). (The publishing company compares it to both Downton Abbey and Bridgerton, but since I have only seen the TV shows for both of those, I can’t speak to their similarity.) I have come to regret this decision, because I enjoyed the book so much that I immediately wanted to continue on with its characters and plot line, but the second book in the series isn’t due out for another month!
The story begins in the year 1901. The Earl of Stainton and his family occupy Ashmore Castle, although at the opening of the tale several of the family members are widely dispersed. Eldest son Giles, who has always been at odds with his father despite his position as the heir apparent—not least for his choice of occupation—is in Egypt on an archaeological dig, while second son Richard is off fighting the Boer War in South Africa. Occupying the castle are the earl, his wife, and their two teenage daughters (plus a host of servants and, occasionally, their elder, married daughter and family plus Uncle Sebastian). But when the Earl breaks his neck in a hunting accident, Giles is called home from his beloved desert vistas to verdant but gloomy England to take up his duties as the new head of household.
What Giles is swiftly made to realize by his father’s men of business is that along with the estate and castle he has inherited a host of severe financial troubles that, if unchecked, will mean certain ruin for the entire family. He grimly digs into the details, hoping to find ways to alleviate the situation, but eventually comes to the dismal conclusion that his only real option is to marry for money. Having dedicated his adult life so far exclusively to his career, he doesn’t have a clue how to accomplish this, so he turns to his worldly Aunt Caroline for assistance.
Meanwhile, 17-year-old Kitty Bayfield, shy daughter of a wealthy but minor baronet and his social climber of a wife, has just graduated from her finishing school, along with her impoverished but vastly more socially skilled friend Nina, and is preparing to be presented to society during the Season. Kitty’s aunt comes up with a scheme to present Nina to society alongside Kitty to help Kitty overcome some of her reticence and feel more comfortable. Soon Giles, his brother Richard, Kitty, and Nina all meet, at teas, dances, and outings, and while Giles is powerfully attracted to Nina, he is soon made to realize that only Kitty can help him out of his financial predicament…
Harrod-Eagles is wonderful at both characterization and world-building, and all the protagonists come alive on the page; but equally compelling are the foibles of the servants behind the scenes, as well as the interventions in the plot made by secondary characters such as a cobbler turned industrialist, Giles’s French grandmother, and Nina’s Aunt Schofield. I spent several pleasurable hours getting to know both people and situations, and was dismayed to discover, when I arrived at the (somewhat abrupt) ending not knowing how certain significant acts in the evolution of the relationships would turn out, that the next book is not yet available. Now I am biding my time by filling in with other books, while anticipating the August 11th release date of The Affairs of Ashmore Castle.
Of course, I could embark on reading the Morland Dynasty books; but if I were to enjoy them as much as I did this, I would be dug in for a good long time, and I’m not sure I’m ready to commit a few months’ reading to the works of one author. Maybe I’ll just read the first one…
I suppose it’s slightly ironic, given that my last post was an enthusiastic recommendation for half a dozen Regency romances, that I don’t normally care for books with blatantly happy endings. Given that statement, it’s even more unlikely that I would bother to pick up a book actually titled The Keeper of Happy Endings. But Barbara Davis combined several elements that lured me in, including the presence of Paris as one backdrop for the story, an artist whose dream was to open a gallery, a seamstress who created couture wedding gowns (yet another form of art), and historical elements set in World War II.
The basic set-up for the story is that it takes place partly in the present day, which in this book is 1985 Boston, and partly (in flashback) during the middle years of World War II, in German-occupied France. It brings together two women who share a similar tragedy in their lives: Soline Roussel, whose fiancé drove an ambulance for the Red Cross in France, and went missing, presumed captured and killed by the Germans; and Rory Grant, whose fiancé is kidnapped, presumably for ransom, while working in the Sudan for Doctors Without Borders.
When the story opens in 1985, Rory’s fiancé, Hux, has been gone for about six months with no word of his fate. Her life has become a waiting game, and she has dropped all pretense of continuing without him; although she is supposed to be preparing for a return to college in the fall, followed by an internship in Paris, she sits at home and reads romance novels, for the distraction and also because she hopes for her own happy ending.
In flashback, Soline Roussel is a young woman working with her mother in their bridal salon. Generations of the women of her family have created “lucky” wedding gowns: a “wish” or charm is embroidered into the dress, and so many of the brides who marry in a Roussel gown end up with good relationships and generally lucky lives that the women (and gowns) have gained a reputation for magic. But the onset of World War II and the occupation of Paris by the Germans has put an end to the business and, after her mother dies of cancer, Soline is at loose ends. She ends up volunteering at a hospital, where she meets Anson Purcell, a Yale man from Boston who drives an ambulance, and he soon becomes the love of her life. Fearful that the Germans will capture Soline and use her against him so that he will reveal details of the Resistance work in which he is secretly involved, Anson sends her off to America
Back in the present day, the two women come together when Rory decides that she will revisit a dream (in which Hux encouraged her) to open an art gallery to exhibit previously unknown artists, and discovers the perfect location for it, the former bridal shop (in Boston) belonging to Soline Roussel. The building was decimated by a fire four years previously, and was partially rebuilt but remains empty. Rory persuades the reclusive Soline to lease it to her and, in the process, Soline recognizes a kinship between herself and the heartbroken girl, and a friendship is born.
This book has a lot going for it. There is a nice balance between the story in the past and the one in the present. There are complex relationships, notably Rory’s with her mother, Camilla, and Soline’s with her own mother and also with Anson. The historical details of the flashback portions of the book feel real and explore some uncommon details about World War II . I wished for more information about Soline’s career in couture as well as the methodology behind Rory’s chosen art form, but both were adequate to the story. The romance was satisfying. There were interesting twists and turns that kept me reading until far later than prudent into the early morning hours.
Are you sensing a “but”? Well…in many ways this was a beautiful and complex story that I wanted to love. But at a certain point, things became too predictable and certainly too coincidental to suspend disbelief, and I know, I know, I should have seen it coming from the title of the book, but the wrap-ups and happy endings for so many of the characters set my teeth on edge. Yes, there is a part of me that thrilled to the fulfillment of everyone’s dreams; but there is a reason I don’t read much romance, and it’s this: There is also a cynic in me that flat-out doesn’t believe it, and wants the complexity of a partial fail or, at least, a tiny bit of the unknown to remain.
I will, therefore, give a qualified recommendation for this book, which is, if you are fond of the perfect ending, especially after a lot of intervening suspense about what will happen, you will adore it. But if you are like me, with an inbred cynic who sits on the sidelines and scoffs, then you will like it, but not nearly as much.
Recap of heroines
I am sure that I have enthused on here about the Regency novels of Georgette Heyer far too much for most people’s taste, so I’m going to just plant a teaser and let you do what you will: I did a re-read of The Convenient Marriage this week, in between other books, and it made me think about which are my favorites of hers and why, and it all has to do with the protagonist. I’m sure you could say that about many books, but with these, in particular, if the main character doesn’t shine, it’s going to fall flat, no matter how beloved the genre, period, scene-setting, etc. So here are mine (and some double as the name of the book):
The Grand Sophy)
HORATIA (HORRY) (from
The Convenient Marriage)
NELL (from April Lady)
KITTY (from Cotillion)
And yes, upon reviewing these, it has also to do with the male leads: Mr. Beaumaris, the Marquis of Alverstoke, Viscount Sheringham, the Earl of Rule, Lord Giles Cardross, and Freddy Stanton from Cotillion, who is the best anti-hero ever.
So I guess, if pressed, these would be my favorites out of the 28 (?) she wrote (in no particular order, except that the one I’m currently reading is always the favorite!). If you’re not a complete ninnyhammer, you will read them and see for yourself!