Escape to the Past: The Rock Creek Six

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Rock Creek Six box set cover imageAfter several years of reading romance novels, I’ve narrowed my preferred romance story type for reading and writing: Contemporary tales featuring ordinary people, with strengths, flaws, and pasts, who are happy on their own, but find another person who helps them grow. I’ve enjoyed other types – paranormals, millionaire, billionaire, suspense, and so on – but the realistic tales resonate more.

On the other hand, reality sucks sometimes, or at least current political events. Stories of happiness in this world are good, but sometimes I want reading time to be time away from this world. Then I turn to historical romances – Regency or Western. While I will always love Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, I’m fond of stories that show strong women defying conventions – in part because I have my doubts about the reality of those conventions. It is true that social roles were more constricted in the past, but there have always been people who act outside the roles, and probably more than we know. The same forces that limit social roles suppress stories of people who don’t follow the roles. In the less connected and documented world of the past, or on the frontier, it was sometimes easier to reinvent yourself, or otherwise be unconventional, and I believe many women took advantage of that. With our histories dominated by stories of powerful men, there’s a lot of satisfaction in reading stories of powerful women.

Which brings me to The Rock Creek Six, a series of independently published books alternately written by Lori Handeland and Linda Winstead Jones, who have been writing romances since the mid-1990s. The books were originally published four years ago, but I discovered them from a recent promotion of the first story (yes, promotion works, even on older stories).

Rock Creek Texas, in the late 1800s, is an undistinguished small town, partly abandoned thanks to raids from local bandits, and lacking men after the civil war. School teacher Mary wants a quiet home, after fleeing two other towns during the war, so she travels to Dallas and hires a gunman to save the town. Reese laughs at her offer of $150, but is attracted to her even though, or perhaps because, she reminds him of his prewar past. And his hotel bill is overdue. Mary’s first sight of Reese is him lying on his bed, shirtless. That, his general lack of propriety, and being well-spoken, calls to something in Mary. The sexually charged dialogue in their meeting (and the steamy covers) is appropriate to the heat level in this series – definitely hot, but sex scenes are well-integrated into the plots (and I will never again be able to say I am “cleaning the bathtub” with a straight face).

Reese wants to bring his friends and fellow gunmen, Sullivan, Rico, Jed, Nate and Cash. They fought together in the civil war, and continue as a loose but fiercely faithful group. The premise is common enough – the comitatus arriving to save the town goes back at least to Beowulf, and the series references The Magnificent Seven, both in promotional material and in Reese’s line about his friends: “Together, we’re downright magnificent.” The bandits, and other old west hazard tropes, are subplots to the real stories – the healing and domestication of the men.

Western plots are typically about bringing order – taming the wild people (or outlaws) just as the wilderness is tamed (and in older stories, this has all the colonialism, racism, and sexism you’d expect). The gunslinger or the comitatus come to town to restore social order, but not become part of it. (At the end of The Magnificent Seven, some are dead, some leave town, and one man stays.) In the Rock Creek Six stories, all the fighting men become part of the social order. They stick around, get jobs, fall in love, marry, and have children (not necessarily in that order). To integrate, they need to change, including overcoming past wounds. They are heroic in their actions and passions (and easy on the eyes), but need direction. A group of strong women provide it.

Sullivan, half Comanche and half Irish, is rescued from a bar fight by Eden, on her way to Rock Creek. She already rescued two children during her trip. She’s Jed’s sister, so he accompanies her for the rest of the trip, then tries to keep her out of trouble while they wait for Jed to return. Rico is smitten by Lily, who arrives in town with the deed for the saloon, big plans and a few secrets. He has secrets of his own. Jed admires the wealthy Hannah’s behaviour when the stage they are sharing is robbed. She’s coming to Rock Creek to prove her sister did not commit murder, and recruits Jed to help, but he has conflicting loyalties. Nate is an alcoholic former preacher. Jo is fond of him, and tracks him down when he disappears. He welcomes her into his bed, thinking she’s his long dead wife, easing him into the heaven he doubts exists. And Cash discovers he has a teenage son, who needs to be talked out of becoming a gun for hire.

The stories take place over at least six years, allowing glimpses of the growth of the town and earlier characters. The chronological separation of the stories keeps them relatively independent (though I had to read the whole series). The backgrounds of the heroes and heroines are sufficiently different to keep things interesting, and the sexual histories of the women vary from clueless virgin to relatively experienced (though not necessarily good experiences). All of the men are, of course, well experienced, but I was delightfully surprised to see a first encounter between a couple that was not wonderful for the woman (even if in a flashback). There are a some great bits of dialogue, lots of heartwarming scenes, erotic moments, and good pacing throughout.

I have my doubts about the realism of aspects of the stories, including the three-story hotel central to the series. Would a small town have a structure that tall? And the women have modern and liberal attitudes to everything from sex to the treatment of the Indians. But I love the happy endings, the happy families, the equality, the redemptions, and the eventual paradise on earth that Rock Creek becomes, thanks to women who take charge.

Sharing Something about Shoes

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This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From tech to fetish, shoes in fairy tales are a mark of status

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The glass slippers in Disney’s 2015 film version of Cinderella.
Allison Shearmur Productions, Beagle Pug Films, Genre Films

Rebecca-Anne C. Do Rozario, Monash University

Fairy tales have always had amazing, wearable tech: from the red shoes and the glass slipper to puss’s boots. Disney’s latest princess, Shuri, the Wakandan teen genius of Marvel’s Black Panther (2018), showing off the “sneakers” she has designed and developed, is the most recent hero to understand a shoe’s potential.

Shuri, the high-tech ‘sneaker’ designer in Black Panther.
Marvel Studios, Walt Disney Pictures

In fairy tales, the seven-league boots cover vast distances in a single step, centuries before Neil Armstrong’s space boots landed on the moon with “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”.

Charles Perrault’s Little Thumbling (1697) even turns the boots into a financial asset. When a poor woodcutter and his wife abandon their children, the children take refuge in an ogre’s house. The youngest, Little Thumbling, thwarts the ogre’s plans to eat them and they flee. The ogre, wearing seven-league boots, gives chase, but tires and falls asleep. The diminutive hero steals the boots from his feet and with them starts a lucrative courier business.

An ogre wearing seven-league boots by Gustave Doré.
Wikimedia Commons

Hans Christian Andersen’s The Galoshes of Fortune (1838) features time and space travelling galoshes, taking wearers to the moon or back to the Middle Ages.

In many tales, shoes are about desire and innovation.

Curses and courtly style

The Red Shoes, illustration by Anne Anderson.
Wikimedia Commons

Once upon a time, a little girl took such joy in red shoes, she was cursed. She could not stop dancing in her shoes. She went to the executioner and asked him to cut off her feet. The red shoes, still fused to her feet, danced off into the woods. Such was the fate of Hans Christian Andersen’s shoe-obsessed Karen.

The shoes are the stars of this 1845 tale. Graphic violence, overt religion, and rigid class hierarchy all conspire to condemn a child for her footwear. When the tale begins, Karen is so poor she is barefoot, with wooden shoes for winter. She is given a pair of shoes cobbled from scraps of red cloth and wears them to her mother’s funeral. Karen’s love of red shoes begins there and when she dares to wear those intended for an aristocrat to her Confirmation, she condemns herself. As Hilary Davidson concludes in her essay in Shoes: A History from Sandals to Sneakers, red shoes embody sex and sin.

Cinderella’s glass slipper, meanwhile, was conjured by Charles Perrault in Stories or Tales of Times Past, with Morals (1697). Perrault worked within the orbit of Versailles, the court of Louis XIV, and he associated with fashionable, aristocratic fairy-tale authors like Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy. He had more than a passing knowledge of fashion.

The slipper, fashioned by the fairy godmother’s wand, was a slip on, high-heeled mule, fashionable at court and even a little risqué, having associations with the boudoir. In a culture of glass innovation, the artistry of such a shoe would have appealed to Perrault’s aristocratic audience.

The glass slipper has been reimagined many times. Here it features in the 1950 Walt Disney film Cinderella.
Walt Disney Productions

To this day, the impossibility of the glass slipper inspires. The shoe has been reimagined many times in satins, plastics and crystals. In Disney’s Cinderella (2015), the shoe is solid crystal and only fits on Cinderella’s foot thanks to CGI.

But Cinderella didn’t always wear glass. In Europe, the first Cinderella to appear in print is Zezolla, known as the Cinderella Cat, included in the Neapolitan author, Giambattista Basile’s The Tale of Tales (1634-36). She loses a chianiello. Some English translations refer to this as a patten, worn to protect one’s shoes from the street.

However, the chianiello is related to the remarkable platform shoes with wooden or cork bases, worn by women in the Renaissance. While some served as overshoes, many were decorative, featuring ornate velvet and other trimmings, and worn in their own right. Red was a common colour and the shoes have long been associated with courtesans.

Red was a popular colour for platform shoes worn during the Renaissance.
Wikimedia Commons

Zezolla loses her shoe while fleeing the King, who then delivers a long, impassioned speech about the shoe as he embraces it. It is an erotic gesture.

Madame D’Aulnoy, the author who gave us the term “fairy tale”, presents a quick-witted Cinderella – Finette Cendron (1697). After going to the ball, she loses her slipper walking home in the dark. It is a red velvet mule, embroidered with pearls, the height of fashion in Louis XIV’s court. The following day, the Prince discovers it while hunting in the forest.

A 1910 illustration of The Brothers’ Grimm Cinderella.
Wikimedia Commons

D’Aulnoy’s prince frankly has a shoe fetish. He sleeps with it under his pillow. He caresses it. He languishes with love for the mule. He drives his parents and physicians to their wits’ ends. Presumably, he marries Finette to obtain the other slipper. For d’Aulnoy, it is not the woman who has a mad passion for shoes, but the Prince.

By the time Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm edited their fairy tale collections, fashion had shifted from the mule to the fabric or kid slipper. Their Cinderella (1812/1857) dances in gold and silver shoes: not solid metal, but likely embroidered in metallic thread. They are easily damaged. After her stepsisters cut off bits of their feet to try on the slipper, it is returned to Cinderella’s foot as a ruined, revolting object.

Status objects

Puss in boots by Leon Bakst, 1921.
Wikimedia Commons

In the Grimms’ The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes (1815), too, shoes are ruined. The King wants someone to solve the mystery of how his daughters wear out their shoes every night. They were dancing. Slippers of the period had thin soles. If they’d only had sturdier shoes, the princesses might never have been found out.

In fairy tales, only the very poor or mistreated have no shoes or shoes of wood or iron. Good shoes allow mobility, protecting the feet from the conditions of terrain and weather. Shoes are a sign of respectability, even authority.

In Perrault’s The Master Cat; or, Puss in Boots (1697), the feline con artist requests boots before helping his master. He receives two boots, giving him an upright stance that, along with speech, makes him a match for humans. Earlier tales by Basile and Straparola feature female cats, but they don’t have boots and they don’t become great lords like Perrault’s tomcat.

From tech to fetish, shoes are the sole of human status, the fairy tales tell us.The Conversation

Rebecca-Anne C. Do Rozario, Adjunct Research Fellow, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 

A Teasing Temptation: Never a Bride

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rossJoAnn Ross is a prolific writer, who has written in a variety of romance subgenres. Just looking over her list of titles is enough to make me want to read some of her work (especially the book where the couple write a romance – and you can also buy the romance they wrote). However, my introduction to her, her 1995 Harlequin Temptation Never a Bride, was disappointing. Neither the series nor the story did much for me.

The series, called Bachelor Arms, is a set of stories revolving around an apartment building full of interesting characters, but here it plays no significant role in the plot. This was a multi-author series, but Ross’ trilogy of three friends are the only ones I can find on Amazon.

Never a Bride opens with a prologue depicting a 1930s murder of a woman, followed by the execution of the apparent killer, her husband. This is a very dark way to begin a story.  In chapter one, we meet Cait, a prostitute, who is soon revealed to be a police officer. It’s gritty, and sets up a meet cute after her shift, but reinforces the dark tone of the prologue. It’s suggested that she works well into the night, but her meet cute after work takes place around 6 PM, which is a little jarring. We also meet Blythe, an actress, after a long fakeout which is revealed to be a film being shot. Coming right after the Cait prostitution fakeout, this is almost tiresome, not to mention an unrealistic (but common) portrayal of how movies are filmed.

After this disappointing opening, the story settles into the growth of a relationship between Cait and Sloan, a screenwriter who has a reason to dislike police. Meanwhile, Blythe’s disintegrating relationship with her fiance and her growing attraction to her new private detective friend is a subplot that threatens to take over the story. It’s Blythe who wants to learn more about the prologue events, it’s Blythe’s wedding that is the climax of the story, and the trilogy’s arc seems to be Blythe’s story. Cait is a bridesmaid for Blythe, which I suppose explains the title, though Cait does not want to marry, nor does she seem to have a history of being a bridesmaid. The barely mentioned Lily is another bridesmaid, and the heroine of the second book.

Despite all the reasons to dislike the story, there were elements that I loved. The meet cute was great, there were some good plot twists, good secondary characters, and the complexity of Blythe’s situation gave depth to the story. Cait is strong and independent, and in a scene where I expected her to be rescued, she looked after herself. Notwithstanding the disappointment with this book, I’m tempted to read the second and third books to see how the author handles other stories, how Blythe’s story turns out, and if there’s any redemption to the sad events of the prologue.

Luck and Privilege: Book Inserts

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Privileged Woman Insert 1

Many of the older romances I pick up, and even some of the newer ones, have mail-in cards that sign you up for a monthly book subscription. The cards usually include a gift, sometimes a contest, and always a sticker of some sort that you must remove from one page and attach to another. Presumably some unknown marketing person proved that asking people to peel off and re-attach a sticker improved response (Terry O’Reilly probably knows who it was). I photograph and paste these on twitter, to celebrate their varying degrees of cheesiness.

Never a Bride, a 1995 Harlequin Temptation (to be reviewed soon), had not one, but two inserts. The usual subscription offer in the middle, but with more sticker madness than usual, as well as an offer “to become a Privileged Woman,” just inside the cover.

The basics are on the first page of the insert, shown above (click to view larger version): travel discounts, some perfume, some other gift, and a newsletter, as well as a “personal” membership card. There are more details when you turn the page:

Privileged Woman Insert 2-3

Wow. Is it just me, or is this patronizing? Even for the 1990s?

“Get the kind of luxuries that, until now, you could only read about.” Because you’re too poor to stay in nice hotels, and don’t know you can get travel discounts from the auto club or any decent travel agent (showing my age, but that’s how we did discounts before the internet).

“A privileged woman is always jetting to romantic places.” Because she obviously doesn’t work (notwithstanding the entrepreneurial bent of many romantic heroines). This seems to be hearkening back to the 1950s, and notions of the jet set. Also, the implication is that romantic places are far away. Some of the most romantic places I’ve ever been are just a city bus ride away, or perhaps a day trip. Then again, I do live in Nova Scotia. You don’t need to read many romance novels to learn that anywhere can be romantic, with the right partner.

“Stir your senses (and his).” Spice up that marriage, ladies. And who doesn’t want “dusting powder in a satin and lace covered box.” In fairness, I love my bubble baths, but that’s for my pleasure, and I don’t fuss over the container.

I could get into half-price movie tickets.

Privileged Woman Insert 4

Just one book gets you in – for a year. I can only assume the program was not successful, since it does not appear to have lasted. But at least it was available to Canadian readers.

Sure enough, the last page of the book had a page summarizing the program, and the proof of purchase. There’s a short code on it which may identify the book, or the date of the offer. One thing missing from this insert is the business reply mailer. If you want to become a privileged woman, you have to supply your own envelope and stamp. There’s also no sticker to move – the proof of purchase is presumably supplied by cutting it out, or ripping out the page, and stuffing it in the envelope. That’s no fun.

The lack of a sticker is more than made up for by the subscription insert.

Subscription Insert p1

Not only do you have up to fifteen stickers to place (if you are lucky), you’ve got scratches too! The Lincoln Mark VIII is just the boat for a privileged woman – a huge two-door, because of course privileged woman don’t have children. But the scratch only reveals a code number. As with the lucky stars bonus, you have to mail in the game to see if you are actually a winner. And don’t get too excited when you look at the stickers, and realize you can match every single row on the match game:

Subscription Insert p2

Enter a caption

When you match a cash prize, you are “instantly” eligible. The only certain prizes are four free books and a free gift. Is it as nice a mystery gift as the privileged women get? As long as it’s not the same, I suppose that’s okay.

Subscription Insert p3

This was a Canadian printing, so the postage paid envelope on the back of this card works, and to comply with Canadian contest laws you can enter by simply sending your name. That’s useful if you can’t be bothered to move the stickers, but then no free books for you. Image (84)

Although this was in a 1995 book, the copyrights are all 1991. According the details in the back, the contest ran until March 31, 1996. Some entrants might have waited five years for the draw. Or they might have given the stickers to the kids, and enjoyed a happy afternoon (or at least a few minutes).

As cheesy as these promotions were, perhaps they reflect the times? Maybe in a few years we’ll be nostalgic for the 1990s.

Or not.

A Breathless Race: Chasing the Heiress

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Chasing the Heiress is a 2016 historical romance  from Rachel Miles. This is from Zebra books, specifically their Shout Fresh New Romance line. Not sure what that all means. The story is in a series called Muses Salon, but in this book the titular salon is just an idea occasionally mentioned.

It’s been a while since I read in a book in a day, but the pace of this one is relentless.  Lady Arabella has escaped her evil cousin, and is slowly travelling to a contact in London, carrying some papers that should resolve matters. She’s currently hiding as a kitchen maid at a country inn.

Colin, gentleman and war veteran, is on a government mission, escorting a pregnant foreign princess to London, when his carriage is attacked, and both he and princess are shot. They arrive at Arabella’s inn, and she tends to his wounds, drawing on her experiences treating wounded soldiers.

He hires her to be his nurse, a mutually satisfactory arrangement, and she takes some romantic advantage of the freedoms of anonymity. Colin needs to protect the infant from unknown assailants, and this requires her assistance during some time in hiding, in exchange for him later escorting Arabella to London, via his estate. They both have enemies, and nowhere is safe.

During Colin’s convalescence, one of the books she reads to him is The Castle of Otranto, which foreshadows a turn towards Gothic. A romantic rival is also introduced. The couple’s love is established early, but whether they will survive, let alone be able to marry, is constantly in peril. 

Though well written and well paced, the abrupt ending left me wondering if there were some pages missing. Arabella is strong, independent, smart, and has multiple skills. Yes, Colin rescues her more than one, but she saves him as often or more. However, sometimes it seems like there is nothing she cannot do. She and several other characters have relatively modern attitudes towards sex, gender roles, class divisions, health care, and so on. This makes the characters likeable and sympathetic, but I’m not sure how realistic it is. On the other hand, she does make one very foolish mistake, so she’s not perfect, and Colin and his family know right away that Arabella is no maid, which reflects their upper class prejudices about how a maid thinks and acts. Miles has done her research – the book is packed with period details, and some insights into less pleasant aspects of life at that time.

The suspense is great, the romance is great, and the historical setting is somewhere between good and great, but the late introduction of the romantic rival subplot and the weakness of the ending (compared to the rest of the story) pull my overall appreciation down a bit. If I hadn’t stayed up late, and then lingered in bed the next morning to see how it all turned out, I might have felt better about the ending (and kudos for storytelling that meant I had to keep reading). Enough of the series arc is introduced to whet my curiosity without distracting from this story, and I want to read a least one more to see if lightening can strike twice.

Snowstorm Seduction: Stranded with the Rancher

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Stranded with the Rancher coverOne of the challenges of romance is getting your couple together, and keeping them together until propinquity kicks in, in a short period of time. A favourite device for this is weather enforced isolation. I do this in my Romance One, where a rainstorm and bridge washout leave my couple stranded and alone. I was worried this might be an outdated plot device, but it is still in use, as in Stranded with the Rancher, a 2018 Harlequin Western Romance by the prolific Rebecca Winters (a pseudonym). 

Wyatt is a sheep rancher and volunteer fire-fighter. A decade ago, he fell in love with Jenny. They planned to marry after she turned eighteen, but she miscarried, and her strict parents moved, taking her with them. Wyatt has always wondered what happened to her, and after seeing a friend reconnect with his high-school sweetheart, he hires a lawyer to try and find Jenny. Why a lawyer and not a private investigator is not clear, and even the lawyer asks, but Wyatt says he wants the lawyer to take care of things.

This sounds like the set-up for a second chance story, but then we meet Alex.

Alex is a New York City journalist, writing for a prestigious food industry trade magazine. She’s happily single after breaking an engagement six years ago to a fiance who called her too needy, and she likes her work, which keeps her busy. She’s just back from Florida, and traveling to Wyoming to interview sheep ranchers. She’s busy, but starting to wonder if there’s enough excitement in her life.

Alex’s research leads her want to interview Wyatt, but he’s up in the mountains. Wyatt’s grandfather arranges for her to get a ride up to the camp, so she can do her interview, come back the next day, and get her flight home.

There’s a storm coming. Heavy rain overnight turns to snow, and Wyatt and Alex are stranded for several days. There’s not much to do except talk, about things like their respective pasts, and their mutual awareness that Wyatt’s grandfather was playing matchmaker. Hanging over their potential relationship is Alex not wanting to be too clingy, and Wyatt thinking about Jenny.  A hired hand, his dog, and a wounded ewe add conversational and plot colour, and we learn a lot about sheep ranching. (In my last review, I criticized some details about camping trailers, a subject I know well. I know nothing about sheep ranching, so have no idea how accurate these details are.)

The storm clears about half way through the book, and the pace and tone shifts as Wyatt and Alex return to the real world. Alex has her job, and Jenny has been found. These obstacles are resolved, and I particularly liked how the relationship with Jenny is handled. Unfortunately, the ending is a long time coming, delayed by a climax involving a secondary character, and then an epilogue that is too sweet for me.

Wyatt is a great hero. He’s good looking, well-read, polite, cooks well, works hard, loving, family oriented, sentimental…almost too good to be true. And he’s wounded, having lost his family when he was five, then his child to a miscarriage, and then his girlfriend. He’s not afraid to seek out professional help – a refreshing portrayal of masculinity. To some extent, he is rescued by Alex, in that their relationship helps him come to terms with his past, but the narrative does not give all the work to her – he does some himself, and so does his grandfather. The story justifies why he is still single – often a problem with great heroes.

Alex is a little less satisfying. Whereas Wyatt is wounded, Alex has a case of ennui, perhaps with a little biological clock ticking. Although there’s a strong conservative tone in the outcome, she does keep her job, and there are story elements criticizing strict conservative morality. She’s capable in the storm, which is consistent with the variety of conditions she has presumably endured as a journalist.

The heat level is sweet, with ample sexual tension, and while the characters are financially comfortable, they are close enough to ordinary to be sympathetic. The relationship is a little less mutual than I like, but overall this story checks all my boxes for an enjoyable read – and reassures me that stranding my couple in a storm is a plot device that can work, at least in capable hands.

Campground Love: Hometown Girl Again

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Hometown Girl Again - coverThis book and the next I’ll be discussing have several aspects in common with my Romance One draft. It’s reassuring to see this, because it lets me know that my ideas are well within the genre. For example, in Stranded with The Rancher (next post), it’s a storm that brings together and isolates the couple (as in my Romance One), and some time passes between the initial meet, and the realization that they belong together, a plot timing I like to use. However, if there are too many similarities, I start to worry that I need to change my story.  In Hometown Girl Again, Katherine is starting a campground after inheriting property, and running into several challenges. The heroine of my Romance One is also starting a campground after inheriting property, and running into some similar challenges.

Fortunately, there are several differences. Most significantly, Hometown Girl Again is a second chance romance, which I’ve never considered drafting. And Alex, a wounded vet, is nothing like my hero. Katherine is starting a glamping park – she’s restoring vintage trailers, updating them with modern conveniences like toilets and air conditioners, and renting them out for people who want a retro camping experience without all the hassle of being hot or buying a sleeping bag. (There are several effective descriptions of how uncomfortably hot it is, and, since there are heat warnings here, I sympathize.)

My heroine is more interested in accommodating tent campers, but both stories include the realities of running a campground, which I enjoy reading and writing about (also see my review of What We Find for a fringe benefit of running a campground). Katherine and my heroine inherit their properties in different ways, and my heroine has to mortgage the property to pay for the campground construction – leaving her vulnerable to an unscrupulous lender. Yes, she falls for the man who has come to repossess the property. Don’t worry, he’s actually a decent sort and it all works out.

I really should finish that book.

Anyway.

Hometown Girl Again is a 2017 book by Kirsten Fullmer, from Augustine Press. They publish independent authors (whatever that means), don’t seem to have website, and perhaps they are responsible for the cover illustration that incorrectly features a modern trailer.

Katherine grew up poor, without a father, lived with her mother until her mother died, and now does nothing except work as a librarian. She does not appear to have any goals or hobbies, and does not date. When an uncle she barely knew dies, she inherits significant cash and a large piece of property, outside the small town her mother is from. While spending a summer there with her uncle, ten years ago when she was nineteen, she fell in love with Alex, but he left the town and her to join the army. Now he’s back in town too, wounded, and working as an electrician.

Katherine cannot sell the property she inherits until she has lived on it for ten years (the old “will with conditions” plot element). The portion she inherits does not include the house – that portion went to another relative – and she wants to invest the money she’s received, to provide future income. She decides to quit her job, learn how to restore vintage trailers, and turn the property into a glamping park where people can stay in vintage trailers. On the one hand, I love Katherine’s can do spirit, and the details about trailers, having owned a tent trailer and a motor home. On the other hand, it took a lot of suspension of disbelief to accept that someone who has apparently never so much as replaced a door, or has any interest in household maintenance, would decide to rebuild trailers. Even basic repairs like fixing a drawer are considerably more complicated in a trailer, which I know from having owned a tent trailer and a motor home, and spent a lot of time and money fixing them.

Katherine is strong, independent, resourceful, and smart, and she buys her trailers partly restored, but I’m wondering why she decided to restore vintage trailers for a glamping park when there does not seem to be anything in her past or character that would suggest this as an interest. This seems like a character issue with an easy fix. Katherine even owns a copy of The Long Long Trailer, which suggests some previous interest in RV living, but that’s not mentioned when the campground idea is introduced, and it could have been.

Fullmer, like her character, has obviously done research on trailers, and she knows installing an air conditioner in a trailer that never had one is not an easy job. Despite all the great details on trailers, there are several unfortunate errors, such as references to wheel chalks, which should be wheel chocks, and Katherine mentions that her recently acquired 1950s era Spartan Royal Mansion (a real trailer model, and as described) is the same trailer as in the film The Long Long Trailer, when in fact the trailer in that film is a (similar) Redman Champion New Moon.

By PunkToad from oakland, us (1954 Spartan Imperial Mansion) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Spartan Trailer, courtesy PunkToad from oakland, us (1954 Spartan Imperial Mansion) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The-Long-Long-Trailer

New Moon trailer, in a scene from The Long Long Trailer, 1954, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

Katherine needs to get the park built, which includes installing power at the sites. And there’s only one electrician in town. Actually, two, but Alex’s dad assigns Alex to the job, because everyone in town wants Alex and Katherine to get back together. Putting in the power is a couple of weeks’ work, which is lots of time for our couple to rediscover their attraction for each other. The course of true love is helped by Alex’s new therapy dog, and shared close-quarters tasks such as installing air conditioners in trailers that never had them.

Katherine and Alex have trust issues, with each other, and in general, but there are never any major obstacles to their relationship. The writing is generally flows well, and I love the line “Made no never-mind to him.” Last heard that expression in the film Paper Moon. The dialogue is crisp, although several times characters agree by saying “Rodger” instead of the more common “roger.” The sexual tension is handled well, with humour, and remains sweet. As in many romances, there’s praise for families, but also acceptance of less traditional family structures. For example, Alex’s parents are divorced, but it’s no big deal. The story of Katherine’s missing father is handled with an interesting mix of liberal and conservative attitudes, but, relative to current attitudes on display in the United States, it’s a hopeful example of compassion and open-mindedness.

There are a few small plot holes. For example, it’s not clear what Katherine does for food while she is living at the campground and apparently not coming into town, and since the property has neither water nor electricity, I’m wondering how she has internet access to set up her website. The details of using a generator and bottled water are appreciated, but underscore the lack of information regarding food and internet. However, the larger plot structures and the character development are solid. (This is where my story is weak. It helps me to read how similar story elements, such as a repair in close quarters, or settling down to watch a movie, are used to advance a plot and a relationship). Although fifth in a series, the references to other stories are subtle.

Overall, this is a gentle sweet romance, sentimentally pro-family but not obnoxiously so, with two people whose relationship helps them heal wounds and achieve individual goals. That’s how I like my romances. The story telling is strong enough to distract me from my usual suspicions of second chance stories. I’ll have to check out the other books in the series, and by the author, though I suspect the campground setting of this one will make it my favourite. I also liked seeing how another author handled setting up a campground, and that my own campground romance is a different path to the happy ending.

Angel, Brawn, and Brains

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I’m still catching up on reviews, after a few weeks of much reading and not much writing, so three for the click of one today. All were cheap purchases for inflight reading, from my local used book store. None were great, but all helped make flying easier.

prestonSatan’s Angel, by Fayrene Preston, is from 1991, and was published under the Bantam books Loveswept imprint. Nicholas Santini, who goes by Satan, runs a small airplane company. Two of his pilots recently died in separate crashes, testing a new plane, and his confidence is shaken. He’s driving back from the funeral of one when he takes a wrong turn, then crashes his Ferrari in remote Paradise, Oregon. Disoriented, he’s rescued by a woman called Angel, and she brings him to her house to recover.

Angel is an orphan, who lives a quiet life fixing appliances and doing home repairs. She also takes in stray dogs, gives good advice to acquaintances, and, thanks to her name, has a large collection of Angel figures given to her as gifts. When the injured man called Satan kisses her to find out if she is real, passion is awakened.

Yes, as is typical in older books, she’s a virgin. And her appearance, angelic nature, and caring is uber feminine. On the other hand, she’s independent, lacks nothing, and is equally comfortable re-roofing a house, fixing a toaster, and patching up an old car. The story starts with her rescuing him, and when things get heated, in the first of a couple of steamy scenes, she’s not looking for promises.

You’re going to be sorry,” he muttered hoarsely against her lips, grasping the zipper in the back of her dress and sliding it down.

His tongue rasped against hers with a sensual abrasion that made the already smouldering fire within her flare and burn hot. She might be badly hurt, she thought, but she would never be sorry. “No I won’t.

The plot is thickened with a suspense subplot, and the climax involves mutual rescue. The angel angle is somewhere between over-obvious and annoying metaphor, and suggestion of paranormal. Satan’s character is less developed than Angel’s, and there’s no mention of birth control or protection, which is a conspicuous omission in a story of this vintage, but this is a pleasant quick read.

simms1From 1992 we have Not His Wedding, by Suzanne Simms, part of the Reluctant Grooms series, from Silhouette. Ross St. Clair is an engineer by training, and has just finished helping villagers build a well, on a remote South Pacific island. On a stroll to watch a sunset, he overhears people making plans to meet a woman at an airport, and get something from her, which may necessitate harming her.

Diane arrives at the Manila airport, and is surprised to be greeted by a rough and dirty man who seems to have come straight from the jungle. He has. He tells her she is in danger. She ignores him, but he follows her to her hotel, cleans up nicely, and manages to talk to her over dinner. She knows the type of man he is – a drifter, completely unlike her fiance, a stable, sensible man, who has been unable to meet her in Manila as he was called away on business.

Is the fiance bad news?  Is the sky blue? I figured out bad guy and the MacGuffin immediately, and I’m not good with suspense plots. However, the plot functions to bring our characters together, and get them to increasingly isolated and romantic locations. Diane’s a virgin, and she really does say “I never dreamed it could be like this,” but there’s a tiny acknowledgement that first sex may not be great. I’m happy to see that, modest as it is. And condoms are not just used, but actually discussed. A little bit.

The title and some of the packaging seems to be more about the series than the story. Ross is not a particularly reluctant groom. He’s not a fan of marriage, but that has a lot to do with his tremendous wealth, which is not revealed until late in the story. Not a spoiler since it’s part of the blurb, and since her wealth is established from the start, this not a case of opposites coming together. The story is essentially rich man rescues rich damsel in distress, and as you know, I’m not that sympathetic to the romantic problems of the wealthy. A few scenes reminded me of the film Romancing the Stone, but neither the characters nor the plot drew me in.

simms2Also from Suzanne Simms is 1994’s The Brainy Beauty. I know, why did I buy something with such an offensive title? I suspect it’s because I pay very little attention to them.

Samantha is a university professor. She has an opportunity to catalog a collection of Egyptian artifacts recently obtained by an eccentric billionaire, but she’ll have to stay at his estate. A narrative leap, but there’s lots of cool tidbits of Egyptian lore. Samantha’s been saddled with a bodyguard, courtesy of a worried uncle, and the explanation for his presence is that he’s a boyfriend.

They get separate but adjoining rooms. There are other characters at the house, and again I was reminded of a film, this time Clue, with elements of bedroom farce (and the estate housekeeper is Mrs. Danvers, with the reference discussed by the characters). Most sexual aspects of the story are very similar to Not His Wedding, right down to the discussion of condoms and some of the touches, as well as her virginity, and eagerness now that the right man has arrived.

However, compared to Not His Wedding, there is more sexual tension, more humour,  more complex characterization, and a more complex suspense plot. Samantha is the stereotypical nerd undergoing sexual awakening (like Hanna in Beautiful Player), and she gets rescued by her bodyguard, but in the course of the story she advances her career, and she takes the lead in defining some aspects of their relationship. Despite the title, overall it was another pleasant quick read.

One Royal Wedding and Four Happy Endings

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hartI’m not sure whether it was a newsletter or a tweet that led me to The Baronet’s Wedding Engagement (2017), by Jessica Hart, but promotions work.  This is the second story in a set of four overlapping stories, by different authors, and I went on to read two of the others.

Max lives in a small English village, looking after a once-grand home, part of a once-grand estate. He was able to rescue the home from his father’s financial scandal, but saved little else, and lost his wife in the process. He sees his children on weekends, remains on civil terms with his ex, and accepts some blame for the marriage ending. So our hero is flawed, brooding, and running a landscaping business to make ends meet.

Flora once had a crush on Max, but he married and she moved on. She moved to London to work as a chef, and live with one, but things did not work out, and she came home to look after her grandfather, and then her grandfather’s cat. Once the cat dies, she can sell the cottage and open a restaurant in London. Meanwhile, she does catering jobs and baking, to the extent she can in her tiny cottage kitchen.

Max’s much younger sister, Hope, is marrying into royalty, and has requested the wedding take place in her home village, with her friend Flora in charge of the catering. Max and Flora work out a deal: She’ll get the use of the large estate house kitchen for her business, in exchange for catering the wedding.  So far things have been relatively gritty and realistic: our couple have pressing financial concerns, difficult pasts, and are now brought together with the common and sensible goal of saving each other money, and ensuring a happy wedding for Hope. It’s a friends become lovers plot, which works well with realistic stories. I can easily forgive one narrative leap: It is sufficiently important to the wedding seating arrangements (and to the protocol mad princess), and therefore to the bride, that Max and Flora have partners at the wedding. To accomplish this, they pretend to be in a relationship. This includes Flora staying with Max when the palace security chief visits, and Flora and Max traveling together (and sleeping together, at first literally) for a pre-wedding planning visit to the principality.

The transition from pretending to be in a relationship to being in a relationship is an easy one to make, but when it comes to making it last there are obstacles, like Flora being a cat person, and Max being a dog person, and Flora’s determination to open her own restaurant in London, while Max is devoted to the family home.

This is a sweet romance, well told, with realistic characters, humour, and moments of pathos. Contemporary English village life is presented with authentic sounding detail, and the overlapping stories ensure secondary characters in this story are themselves complex. There are hints of Gothic in the setting. Hart has led a fascinating life of travel and adventure, and began writing romances to finance her PhD. in Medieval History, so she is able to write with authority on a number of subjects.

westonThe royal wedding is the overall narrative arc for the series, which starts with The Prince’s Bride, by Sophie Weston (a pseudonym for Jenny Haddon). Hope is dealing with her father’s scandal and death by traveling through Europe. While house and dog-sitting in a (fictional) principality, she gets lost in a forest, and is rescued by a handsome ranger, Jonas.

Jonas is a reluctant prince, lawyer in the family firm, and volunteers as a park ranger. He falls for Hope, at least in part because she does not know or care who he is, and he’s reluctant to share that. And she’s reluctant to be with anyone who keeps secrets, or be in the public eye.

Hope’s story is more fairy tale than Max’s. It’s not just the meet of being rescued by a prince in a near magical forest. Jonas and Hope lead relatively charmed lives. While the story is well written, and a little hotter than that of Max and Flora, I found it less appealing. However, I did enjoy the different perspective on the same events, and the additional context on Max’s situation.

fieldingI also read the third book, The Bridesmaid’s Royal Bodyguard, by Liz Fielding.  Ally, a friend of Hope’s, worked for a gossip magazine, but was fired. She’s moved back to her parent’s place in the village, cleans at a local pub, and, at Hope’s request, is handling PR for the wedding. Initially, this means keeping it quiet. She’s also preparing an authorized book about the wedding, and while the sales will benefit a charity Hope is administering, Ally is counting on it to boost her career.

Frederick is head of security for the royal family, and immediately suspicious of a deeply indebted former gossip writer. But she’s the one who publicly greets him as a boyfriend, in order to provide a cover for his early arrival in the village, and kisses him, to stop him from talking.

Ally and Frederick meet and must work together due to Hope’s wedding.  As with Max and Flora, they make up a pair for the wedding seating plan. Ally has financial, career, and trust issues, and Frederick, while free of financial concerns, has trust issues and various wounds, psychological and literal. Despite differences in age and personality, they have more in common with each other than they care to admit, or initially realize, and they assist each other address ghosts in the past (with particularly interesting and refreshing results in one case, and pathos in another). There’s fish out of water humour with Frederick’s introduction to English country life.

Again there is the different perspective on some events, which is entertaining, and the complexity of secondary characters. There are two relationship obstacles that seem a little forced, but I’ll let it go, since the story is otherwise well plotted and well told, with solid characters. I also noted a missed edit – a repeated line – but such is modern publishing. This story is between the fairy tale touch of the first one, and the realism of the second.

mcallisterThe royal wedding happens at the end of the third book, but there is fourth book: The Best Man’s Bride, by Anne McAllister. This is a second chance story, featuring a more peripheral character from the Royal family, and her rock star ex-husband. I have not read this one yet – second chance stories are not my favourites, and I’d just read a set from Donna Alward, but it’s on my list. Online reviews suggest it offers another perspective on events, and is as well plotted as the others. I suspect The Baronet’s Wedding Engagement will remain my favourite of the series, but all are worth reading for the collection of different plots, different perspectives, and different writing styles, exploring aspects of the same event and characters.

I’d really love to see you tonight: Healed with a Kiss

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When I’m writing stories or essays, I listen to light classical music, or Enya. For other online work, such as these posts, my music of choice is soft rock from the 1970s and 1980s. As I started drafting this post, “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight,” from 1976, started to play, and it seemed appropriate. Most of the lyrics, and the gentle casual vibe, match the story. Let’s listen.

wilkinsHealed with a Kiss is a 2014 Harlequin Special Edition from prolific writer Gina Wilkins. This is the third in series from the same author, using the same location, but it reads like a stand alone.

Alexis tried to make it big on Broadway, but left the big city, and a boyfriend only interested in the trappings of her career. She bought a small town wedding planning business in the Blue Ridge area of Virginia, and got to work making other couples happy. With a family history of bad marriages, and her own relationship disappointment, she has no interest in romance or marriage.

A major customer is a local inn, run by two sisters and their brother, Logan. Logan was a software entrepreneur, but a bad partnership ruined the business, and he’s content to do landscaping and maintenance at the inn, with some consulting on the side. He’s also had relationship disappointments, and is not interested in romance or marriage.

Alexis and Logan regularly meet when there are weddings at the inn. He complains about the promises she makes to brides, and she complains about his grumpiness. A couple of evenings a month he comes to her place for no strings sex (like the song). He never stays the night, of course. Both are happy with the arrangement, and at first they don’t realize how the arrangement is changing their lives.

This is a comfortable story of a couple discovering they are in love, and being unsure how to react. Nothing more. There’s no initial dislike, the complications are mild, the stakes are low, the sex is discreet, the climactic event is almost trivial, and yet it adds up to a satisfying read, thanks to good writing. Wilkins is skilled at including just the right amount of detail to describe a scene, set a mood, and establish realism. (Several years ago I found His Best Friend’s Wife less satisfying, but noted good use of detail). A key sequence in the book does a great job of showing the relationship develop, and demonstrates that you can throw things at your characters other than rocks. It was delightful to see these two hard-working, equally strong, and somewhat cynical individuals overcome past wounds, and accept that a relationship might work.