Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Overthinking Harlequin, Part 2!

So.  Here is the second part of another no doubt long and endless occasional series, the Romance Reviews Ridiculously Overthought! Welcome to my overflowing box of old romance books, dated anywhere between late 80s to the late noughties…This selection mostly from the noughties.

I would say these were a guilty pleasure, since they are so far from reality in plot and characterization; but oddly, they have a sort of archetypal appeal – not just the long suffering or feisty heroine, with her no doubt sexy and supportive hero…but there are ideals in these very Establishment stories of communication.  How the Battle of the Sexes died, through the power of honest and open communication.  How most of the problems in the world could be made better by an honest admission of mistakes, or spitefulness; through attempts to make amends.  There’s an honest belief in change of personality in these stories.  So whilst on the one hand, they really do put forward an endless stereotype of the man-woman-let’s breed family model, and the idea of family as everything (which can get so oddly tribal and destructive when overdone), they also put forward an ideal, separated from those other ‘values’, of Hope.  Hope in people’s characters, hope for a better world based on co-operation, and the idea that if we are all kind and try to support one another, sometimes very tactfully and from a distance, the world can be a better place.

For that last, and for all the jumbled up ideals and despite the ‘traditional value’ stuff you find in this stories, I still read them.  Especially when stressed, there is absolutely nothing like KNOWING that your chosen characters WILL overcome their many trials, be they inward of despair or anger, or outward, of seemingly insurmountable circumstances.  Their connection with each other, their desire to help and to build new things, positive things, will overcome.  There – see, I’m overthinking already.

And…I really do seem to be a total sucker for a very overblown book cover…this one here is quite mild.  I seemed to have read a rather subdued lot of covers this time round...

1.    Operation Bassinet, by Joyce Sullivan (Silhouette Intrigue, 2003)
(I would never call it a bassinet.  Now we’ve got that out of the way.  Must be a cultural thing.  I’m not usually a fan of ridiculous plot lines like babies switched at birth, but [a], this one was well written, and [b] Stanley called my attention to a U.S. news story yesterday where exactly that had been just uncovered to have happened a few years ago in a perfectly normal suburban hospital somewhere I forget, but not malicious, just human error.  So it’s one of those reality is stranger than fiction stories.

I liked the way the heroine was both humorous [At the beginning, anyway, before everything went wrong], and spunky, whilst still being as worried sick as I would be in this situation.  She was a believable character in a soap opera scenario. The hero kept trying to be very professional, because getting too involved emotionally with a child kidnap case before had, he believed, contributed to the death of both child and the child’s grandmother that reminded him of his own family.  So he is torn through most of the story, and in a way that isn’t annoying and contrived, but nuanced.  You believe in him too.

Enjoyable book – I will seek out more by this author.  I liked her characters [half the battle done], and the story was pacey.  It also obviously had elements of previous stories in it, as it was part of a miniseries [‘Collingwood Heirs’], but whilst the recaps were a little intrusive, that’s probably unavoidable, and well handled.  ACTUAL BOOK.)
2.   Under Lock and Key, by Sylvie Kurtz (Silhouette Intrigue, 2003)
Amusingly both this book, and Operation Bassinet, which I was reading simultaneously, both had ‘baddies’ in called Sable – so I was in a perpetual state of expecting Stephanie Beacham to start fist fighting with an absent Joan Collins in a shiny very shoulder-padded dress, while diamonds fell off them.  Neither Sable in either story was quite that bad.  In Operation Bassinet she was ruthless, but at base, ok; in this story, she nearly committed murder – but for love of her child, so we almost forgive her – even if she did almost kill the heroine, whom we agree right from the start, has already Gone Through Quite Enough, Thankyou.

The funny thing about this story was the mad set-up.  An English medieval castle transported to Texas and plopped there, with a billionaire woman living in it as a hermit, because she is disfigured by burns.  The townspeople think she is a witch, and stand outside her castle singing hymns and preaching.  There’s a goat sacrifice blamed on her.  A reporter comes to save her from a threat signalled by menacing letters accompanied by chess pieces.  It’s like several late night B movies all mushed up together. 

I did have slight trouble with the melodrama elements to begin with, but the tale itself was told quite calmly, which did save it from its madly larger than life characters.  I liked the way the hero spent most of this story feeling very guilty about a facet of his own personality that he imagined had gotten his previous fiancé killed; so that he kept wanting to drink himself into oblivion.  But he fought it, and didn’t.  I ended up liking and cheering on Melissa, and eventually even the spoiled Tia; and I liked Grace and Tyler from the start.  This book really felt stuffed full of incongruous elements [the horse-riding; the alchemy], but they were just about made to work – for which: kudos to the writer.  ACTUAL BOOK.)
3.   Summer at Willow Lake, by Susan Wiggs (Mira, 2006)
To begin with I was a bit confused by the chopping and changing of time frames and the large amount of characters being introduced, but I did have one very long reading session one morning when I got stuck in a coffee shop [hell itself, I can tell you – nothing to do but drink soymilk latte and read – tsk!], and after that I felt in the swing of things entirely, and quite hooked on…everybody.

This is the most American of settings, a children’s holiday camp.  Of course, I am culturally out of this loop entirely, except for being aware there really should be both a small and large Jason Voorhees tramping about capsizing people in their kayaks, and chopping people with machetes.  Because those are among my favourite films.  Or, a Cropsie cutting people up with shears on a life raft…

Once I got over the absence of those things, I appreciated the double edged sword that Susan Wiggs allowed camp to be.  I always imagined it would have been yet another place where I would have been bullied – since there seems to be SO MUCH emphasis on group activities and sports – two things I do not excel at, at all.  She allowed some of her characters [in flashback], to be miserable at camp.  I liked that.  They didn’t stay miserable, and they grew over seasons, as the flashbacks changed in timeframe depending on who we were following; plus some cast members hadn’t been there when the camp was open and were only present for the latter day sections of the book, when it’s being staged and primped for a large wedding anniversary.  But she didn’t idealise it too much.  She DID make it sound a very desirable experience if it was done well, and an experience the like of which you wouldn’t get elsewhere – which was painted calmly and beautifully.  I felt pulled in.

The characters were great in this book.  I really went for the hero Connor, and heroine Lolly/Olivia, both of whom had a lovely and understandable amount of personal growth over their 15 year time frame.  I loved Daisy Bellamy [who has her own book later, I understand]; I loved the dreadlocked brother of Connor and his mad jumping – I loved the way Daisy inspired him to lead a bigger life and have more hopes for himself [rather Coach Carter, her effect on him].  I loved Mariska and Olivia’s father, their delicate storyline of reunited relations. 
There was an awful lot going on in this book, but it was handled well in that each episode got its own breathing space and didn’t feel hurried or glossed.  So you had time to get into each character.  I have already got hold of the next two in the series. I can see this one box of books is going to spawn devil’s children as I try to finish incomplete series’ etc!  Oh dear…ACTUAL BOOK.)
4.   A Hero of Her Own, by Carla Cassidy (Silhouette Romantic Suspense, 2009)
(This is the sort of romance that makes me stop reading romances. Actually, there are two sorts that do that.  There’s the ‘her hair was like honey, golden  tresses’ cliché type thing. This was not one of those.  Then there are those that have really promising plots but chicken out of doing them properly. Like there’s a killer on the loose at the end, a silly killer I find annoying, and then the hero comes in and neutralises everything by saying, ’its ok, I tied him to a tree outside, it’s all over’, and you think…’oh, that’s it then’. 

There were several problems with this book; the chickening out of plot developments was one. The heroine was the other main one. She was supposed to be a psychologist [working on a ranch with troubled children] but she seemed to have no understanding of herself at all and seemed very quick to decide the hero was the enemy stalking her, on ridiculously flimsy circumstantial evidence.  She reasoned like a paranoid teenager. It’s one thing to be able for others and stupid with your own problems - we’ve all been there, but she showed no psychological understanding at all.  The only psychological insight shown at all in the novel was the repeated assertion that one of the troubled children she worked with ‘is afraid to be happy unless it be taken away’, which is the sort of pop psychology we can all come out with.  It made me feel that the writer had done no research into being a child psychologist at all; had just decided it sounded cool as a job and hoped she could wing it.  I didn’t buy the heroine as a psychologist at any point.  If this had been one of the older SuperRomances for example, they would have played this better. You would have had character building episodes where you see the heroine in therapy sessions with at least one if not two of the children, or in interaction with them showing her kindness and skill.  You wouldn’t just be told she was a psychologist and then given no evidence of her ability to work anything out at all.  Then again, those books had a longer word count, so more room to manoeuvre.

The last real problem was the constant reference to the other books in what is a long reaching series with several mini-series offshoots – the Colton Family is quite a long running series.  The references to other couples who had got together in previous books and the quick summing up of their plots shows how overboard some of these books can be - we had a baby stealing ring busted by one man, whose woman  had her baby stolen by them…I cannot imagine having a romance while my baby was kidnapped [excepting Operation Bassinet, apparently].  I would be in pieces and probably tearful, hostile and rather psycho. It seemed unbelievable.  And there were several scenarios - the heroines own mother, an overwrought tale of madness and 20 years’ worth of identity switching etc.

The thing is, romances CAN get away with quite a lot of ridiculously melodramatic plotting - but you have to be able to carry it off (think Sunflower, in the last posting: perfect example, perfectly done)!  All these references to past ridiculousness, whilst involved in a present ridiculous plot annoyed me.  I just couldn’t believe in it.

However, I have liked MANY other books by this author in the past, so I blame this one on heavy writing schedule. I see she had another one out the very next month – I have no idea how many she writes in a year, but she seems to be a churner; I can’t expect them all to be brilliant.  So this one got through the net.  There was a scene in this book that I did love, and was just the thing that romances can do very well indeed: the hero and heroine went with all the children on a picnic day out, riding to pastures far away, and then sitting, watching the children playing and eating, till all were tired and they rode gently back again: it was just a lovely day out and I got a feel for the space and the skies overhead and the children laughing.  If this book had had more scenes like this – where I feel the surroundings, the milieu, I might have found the plot of rest of the book more believable.  ACTUAL BOOK.)
5.   Devil Takes a Bride, by Gaelen Foley (2004)
(This was a quite wonderful historical.  It had so much more period depth and background scenery than your average Regency romance, which simply whisks you around Almacks and speaks in stilted English.  Yes, I know, some are masterpieces [earlier Mary Jo Putney for example, some Julia Quinn, off the top of my head], but there are so many, as the Americans are so obsessed with this limited timeframe in their historical romances, that it’s hard to shine out as anything different or moreso.  This series Gaelen Foley has written will I think manage it. 

The story itself was incredibly in depth, a revenge story where the hero gets very dark indeed, and is only saved by the calm kindness of understanding…and also actually enacting some of that revenge; which was thoroughly well earned, since he imagines his entire family was killed in a fire set by villains.  The fact that one of them was saved is good, but the villains of the piece did burn down a whole building, killing over 40 people, to ensure crimes against one went unnoticed.  The villains too were given way more depth than is usual in these pieces.  I ended up knowing at least three of the notorious Horse and Chariot Club much better than I could have done, and I had a real feel for some of the others.  This romance painted such a denser picture than usual, and did not skimp over any of the action, but patiently told every quiver of the story, no rush.  Very nicely done indeed. 

And I felt like I learned to ride a coach and four, which is handy, should I be pursued by any archaic villains in future.  I liked this one so much, I immediately started on one of her earlier ones in the same series, from the tantalising references to one of the characters in this one.  ACTUAL BOOK.)
6.   Lady of Desire, by Gaelen Foley (2003)
This was a good story, mainly because the character of Billy Blade, aka Earl of Rackford, really jumps off the page and follows you about.  He was one of those characters you can thoroughly immerse yourself in: beaten and treated badly as a boy by his father, he runs away to the city, and ends up a sort of lord of thieves, in his own way trying to carve an area of justice and safety in otherwise hellish eighteenth-century streets.  After he meets the heroine, he ends up having to acknowledge his past and become Rackford again.  The only thing that makes that bearable for him is Jacinda, the Lady of the title.  He only goes back to the Ton to save his street friends and allies from hanging after they are betrayed.  The thing with Billy/Rackford, is that despite terribly harsh treatment, he is alive with a strong sense of moral justice, and its not just about revenge – simply a need to forge reliable and loyal ties based on trust and integrity, then to try and even societies scales by any means necessary, for your patch of the world.  It occurs to me writing that, that there’s almost something of the superhero about this Earl: and yes, you see him having hand to hand combat, jumping over rooves in the darkness; he is a tattooed enigma, in many ways.  You want to be Lady Jacinda, gaining his trust.  He is a really nicely written character.  I especially liked that even when made to go back to Society, he kept his leftish leanings, his desire to protect and include the poorest and most vulnerable and joined the Radical party, instead of the more middle of the road and staid Whig Party.  The politics in this book were lovely – Jacinda was a libertarian for herself, but a conservative without thinking about it when it came to societal matters; whereas Billy/Rackford stood up for all, and especially the downtrodden.  He despised inequality and tried to do good with what was suddenly a massive fortune.  My kind of hero!

The scene at the end where he makes peace with his father was very quietly and kindly done – the pattern of abuse and beatings being shown up, and what it meant to both the father and the son, exposed.  This is what romances do so well, highlight and clarify patterns of this sort, and how to break them, or at least to shed light upon them.  This wasn’t quite so wracking or harrowing as the last Foley, but the hero more than made up for the slightly quieter plot, and the fact that the book felt like it had 2 distinct halves – in that the first half was Blade in the rookeries as a thief; the second was him back at ‘home’ with the Ton.  I preferred the first half, but then, I would – having read so many historicals, there are only so many escapades at Almacks you can read before you feel you really have done it all before.  The first half of this novel managed in many ways, to tread ground not gone over so many times before, and to do so in a new way.  Impressed.  ACTUAL BOOK.)
7.   Brave Heart, by Brittany Young (Silhouette Special Edition, part of the Celebration 1000 series, 1995)
(Hmmmm, the thorny subject of Native Americans and romances.  Is it exploitative to have these as a sub genre, like Middle Eastern sheikhs [I’ve never been able to read any of those, they seemed too stupid to me; but never say never]??  I am not sure.  My ‘position’ on Native Americans, from never having been to America or met a Native American, so you get that I know I am not best informed; is that I read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee once and I never got over it.  Terribly sad awful experiences.  So I come from there, in my head.

I actually personally, love this sub-genre.  And there has rarely been one as well written as this one.  The feeling of the reservation, the feeling of the utter difference in cultures and priorities is both explained and shown.  I got a marvellous feel for our hero, Daniel Blackhawk and his tribe of Woodland Indians [I had no idea there were Woodland Indians; or if I did know, I forgot].  His uncle Gray Cloud, the wolf that follows the heroine Rory about, the spaces and look of the Wisconsin land – I felt I got to know it all.  The heroine started off in my opinion as totally on the wrong side of everything and almost unlikeably unsympathetic, even as I could see where she was coming from [she was on the side of drilling the reservation land for copper and damn the inhabitants].  She got to know where her ecological bread was buttered as the story progressed.  And she became a defender of the people instead of an enemy. 

Chillingly, sadly, right after I finished reading this, I read a news article where exactly this [same story, different metal] has just happened in the States, except that of course, being real life, the government won and it appears the land will be drilled and damn the inhabitants…This is why fiction is better sometimes…And why we should all protest more.

Anyway, getting off that sad note – I really enjoyed this, Brittany Young has a lovely effortless style that’s clear and easy to read, uncluttered, but wonderfully descriptive.  I will look for more by her…ACTUAL BOOK.)

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