My Lady’s Honour

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My Lady's Honor cover imageMy Lady’s Honor, by Julia Justiss, is a 2002 Historical Romance from Harlequin. My copy was originally printed in England, so titled My Lady’s Honour and sold by Mills and Boon. I wrote about the book’s history in The Well-traveled Book. I can’t decide if this story is charming or annoying.

Gwennor’s father has died, and the estate has passed to her cousin Nigel. Nigel schemes to promptly marry Gwennor to an elderly man with five rowdy sons, in order to pay a debt and eliminate his costs of supporting her or finding her a more suitable husband. Gwennor’s mother died at her birth, her stepmother died when she was in her teens, and she has long cared for her stepmother’s son, an intellectually disabled young man, Parry. Parry is childlike, and prone to wandering the fields, but good at caring for horses and other animals. Gwennor would accept an unhappy marriage as her lot in life, so long as she can continue to care for Parry, but Nigel plans to separate them, and lock Parry away.

With the groom arriving the next day, Gwennor plans an escape to a distant aunt. To avoid pursuit, she arranges to travel with a company of gypsies, conveniently staying on the estate but leaving that night. Disguised as one of them, she quickly learns the work of picking up cash reading the fortunes and otherwise entertaining the locals, as well as the occasional group of gentlemen seeking diversion. The visitors may ogle the women dressed in clothes more revealing than a lady would wear, but there is a strict hands-off policy.

Gilen de Mowbry reluctantly joins his friends for a visit to the gypsies, and is entranced by a veiled woman who seems more refined than the others, and responds to his literary double entendres in kind. He requests his palm read, taking every advantage of the close contact, then requests a dance, and risks a kiss, which is reciprocated. As I have said before, there’s something about kissing a stranger, and being disguised only makes it better. The gypsy leader intervenes at the forbidden contact, and sends the guests away. Gilen wishes to learn more about the mystery woman, and returns to the camp the next day, but the gypsies have moved on.

A few weeks later, Gwennor is happily receiving court from two suitors, one elderly, and one young, and both pleasant enough. The younger man has been unwisely impulsive in his affections before, and his friend, Gilen, comes to town to meet the lady. Gilen and Gwennor soon recognize each other from their encounter at the gypsy camp, and the dance begins.

This is what I call the French Lieutenant’s Woman plot – man is attracted to fallen woman, who he can have sex with but cannot love or marry, only to discover she is a virgin, and therefore was suitable for love and marriage until he ruined her. Perhaps it reflects the times, but I still find the whole concept unpleasant. And Gilen is particularly repulsive in his treatment of Gwennor. No matter how many times he tells himself that his behavior is only acceptable because she is a fallen woman and deceitful, he still comes off as crude, arrogant, and short-sighted. His awareness of his rudeness just makes it worse. It may be wishful thinking on my part, but my idea of a hero is a man who treats all women with respect, not just those he deems worthy of it.

That’s the annoying aspect of the book, but there are many charms. Gwennor is a wonderful character. Practical, resourceful, smart, and willing to take pleasure in a one-night-stand if that’s the best arrangement that can be obtained. Gilen’s insults set up situations where she can slap him, kick him out of a carriage and abandon him on a country road, and go after him with a whip. There are entertaining twists and turns in the plot, and they are narratively justified. Scenes like the whip attack build erotic tension, and there is fun dialogue, such as when she honestly identifies the man who took advantage of her:

“Are you ever going to tell me the truth about how you ended up with the gypsies?”

“I’d rather not talk about it. Besides, what difference could it possibly make now? You formed your opinion of me long ago.”

“Perhaps, but I’d like to know which of my theories is correct.  . . . your ravisher let you slip away. Should I shoot the careless bastard for you?”

“That would be suicide.”

Gilen is eventually punished for his boorishness, but I’m not sure it’s enough. It’s also worth noting that the ‘bloody sheet as proof of virginity’ cliché is mercifully absent here.

It’s a fun story, well told, with a tone that suggests it is not taking itself too seriously. The presumed fallen woman plot is annoying, but that attitude existed, and sadly still exists, so that’s an element of realism, unpleasant as it may be. Gilen is not much of a hero, at least for me, but Gwennor is a great heroine. For a similarly well written story where the hero and heroine are both great, see my review of Justiss’s later and better A Most Unconventional Match.

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The Well-traveled Book

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My Lady's Honour - Front CoverMy library is not what it used to be. For decades I accumulated books, dragging them back and forth across the country, and my library was a source of pride. Vanity, to be honest. Changing priorities (a euphemism for not having enough money) meant I had to drastically prune the collection, but that task was made easier by electronic books and online resources. I no longer have my complete set of Star Trek novelizations, but any time I want to read one, I can check it out from Open Library.

I miss the attributes of physical books, particularly those that reveal personal connections or history – bookstore stamps, bookplates, dedications, notes and so on. They don’t have to be for me. I have a book with a note on the inside cover, stating “To my favourite love poet – M.” I purchased the book used, and sometimes wonder about the relationship between M and their poet, and how the book ended up in a church fundraiser. Did they break up, and whoever received the book could not bear the reminder of happier times? Are they still together, but had to prune their books to make room for the baby/cat/sailing adventure? Did the poet die in a car crash, and when her partner found the book, did he wonder who M was, and why this person got poems when he never did? Did M receive love poems from more than one person, and was not shy about admitting that or declaring a favourite? And will my children someday wonder what M meant to me?

My Lady's Honour - Back CoverI recently picked up a book at a little free library in Vancouver, British Columbia. This was a genuine British Mills and Boon historical romance (Harlequin in North America), originally sold 22 years ago, for £3.65. At some point it was listed for £1 on the first page, and it later ended up in a collection belonging to the British Heart Foundation, with a sticker stating “Read me, then bring me back again.” Someone missed that. Did the book fly directly from London to Vancouver? However it got there, I brought it with me back to Halifax, for reading enroute, so it has seen both ends of the country. Once I write my review, I’ll leave it in the laundry room library of my building, and who knows where it will go next.

If an average of about five people a year read this book, it has been held by a hundred people, and I feel a kinship with them – we are closer than those who have merely read the same story. We have taken this book to different places, sharing and spreading happy endings wherever we go. Perhaps among my GoodReads friends is someone who read this very copy. This book has been in hundreds of locations – stores, home, offices, and at least one bath tub (guilty). If this book could talk…and there’s a story idea.

Fury’s Kiss

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Cover - Fury's Kiss - Nicola R. WhiteFury’s Kiss, by Nicola R. White, was published in 2013 by Strange Roads Press, and is the first of four books in her New England Furies series.

This was a venture a little out of my comfort zone. I believe the genre is urban fantasy, though when I was young it was just called fantasy. Besides, the setting is more small town than urban. There’s a romance subplot too. It’s more erotic than romantic, which I’m not wild about, but the occasional steamy action is not excessive, and narratively justified.

Tara Walker is a twenty-something waiter, with the modest ambition of owning her own restaurant. When she’s stood up for a first date, she heads to a local bar, but the one good-looking man who wanders in, Jackson, is not interested. As she leaves, a new arrival tempts her into a parking lot kiss (there’s something about kissing a stranger), but he wants more, and will not take no for answer. She defends herself with unexpected strength she mistakenly assumes is adrenaline, and in minutes he’s dead.

Wow. Great opening, and certainly a strong female character. The opening sets up multiple overlapping narrative threads. Tara needs to learn to manage her new abilities (and what they are), she’s the subject of a murder investigation, and someone or something is after her. Fortunately, there are a lot of characters to help her. Her room mates readily accept her new skills, there’s a kindly elderly neighbour who is not what she seems, and a young child who is more than she seems.  Tara adjusts to sharing her body with an ancient vengeful spirit, and faces ancient dangers.

Then there’s Jackson. Tara is attracted to Jackson, and he, reluctantly, to her, but their relationship is hastened and complicated by the different sexual attitudes of the Fury that possesses her, and his connection to the dangers Tara faces.

If I was being picky, I’d say fantasy must be symbolic,and pull out some coming of age symbolism – Tara’s inner fury is the loss of innocence we adults learn to live with, etc. But this story is too gritty and realistic for an easy symbolic reading. There are gender issues too. When Tara is being mauled at the bar, she recalls that a serial killer of women is on the loose, and it seems much of a Fury’s work is protecting women and children from men. However, the pace and action discourages dwelling on this.

[Spoiler alert]

The conclusion brings some good twists, and, after all the excitement and danger, a relatively conventional romantic happy ending. Although Tara retains her powers, the blurbs for the other books in the series focus on other characters who become Furies. In this aspect, the stories are more romance than fantasy. There does not appear to be an overall arc of some growing danger that might explain why multiple Furies appear in close proximity. However, I’m not sure I’d call these romances. Compared to other romances I have read, even paranormals, there is more action and complexity. That also makes this a much richer story than many paranormal romances.

I’ve already picked up another book by White, and looking forward to reading it. That’s probably the best indicator of how much I enjoyed this. Although it’s not the sweet semi-realistic romance genre I prefer, the characters, plot, action, and pacing, and even the grittiness and sex, make it a great read.

Evening Stars

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Evening Stars is a 2014 novel by Susan Mallery, from Mira books (a Harlequin imprint that features longer and more complex stories than genre romance, aimed at a broader audience). As the cover states, this is ‘A Blackberry Island Novel’ which tells us there are other stories in this setting. The Booklist review excerpt blurbed on the back notes “Mallery pulls out all the stops,” but that’s not always a good thing.

Nina is the practical, sensible, caretaker in her family, looking after both her mother and her sister, and sacrificing her ambitions in the process. She’s thirty, lives with her mother, and is starting to feel frustrated with small town life and financial struggle (although she has been away to college, and helps run a family antique business as well as working as a nurse). The story begins with two (2) meet cutes, as different men from her past return to her town. Dylan, a couple of years older, was her first lover, and they were together for years, but he broke up with her, under pressure from his parents. Now a doctor, he’s returned to practice with his father. Kyle, several years younger, desired her when she babysat his younger sister. He’s now a military pilot, stationed nearby for a few months, and keen to fulfill some long-held desires.

It’s been ten years since she’s had any contact with either of these men. Ten years! In which neither of the men married, and she married only briefly – just long enough to be married when Dylan made a rare trip home. Now Dylan apparently just wants to be friends, and Kyle just wants a fling. So this is a second chance story, but without much to sustain the desire, or much explanation as to why it endured.

Nina’s up for a fling, and good for her, but it gets awkward when Kyle wants something more serious, and she rediscovers how good it was to be friends with Dylan. The romantic triangle never feels quite right, or quite wrong. Meanwhile, Nina’s wacky mother is upending the family with a plot twist that sends the narrative off in slightly disturbing directions. Nina’s sister interrupts the story with her struggling marriage subplot (including too much self-referential material about being a writer), and there’s another subplot involving the woman Nina hires to run the family’s antique store. Someone’s having an affair, too, but I don’t think it was anyone important. There’s a lot going on here, and too much of it is happening to characters I don’t care about.

A big revelation is Nina’s bird’s-eye view of the island, which pushes her to get on with her life, and expand her horizons. However, it’s not as if she has never left the island, since she did spend two years in Seattle at college. Her experience with life in the big city weakens that revelation.

The story expands from Nina’s second chance at romance to her second chance at making the life she wants. This is good, as sometimes you need time to be ready to seize opportunities, but at the end of the story I’m left wondering why it took so long for Nina to be ready for life and love – and what might have happened if Mr. Right, Mr. Right Now, and Mr. Deus Ex Machina had not shown up to rescue her.

His Diamond of Convenience

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His Diamond of Convenience coverA recent trip meant lots of reading in a short period of time. On one flight, I enjoyed the gentle realism of Donna Alward’s Almost a Family followed by the playful Playboy’s Proposal, from Ashlee Mallory. A few days later, it was much further into escapism, with His Diamond of Convenience, from Maisey Yates.

His Diamond of Convenience is a 2015 Harlequin in the Presents line. Yes, there is still a market for stories of idle rich virgins meeting idle rich macho men in exotic locations for hot kinky sex, leading to marriage. It’s not my cup of tea, and I’m tempted to say that if you removed the sex and made the woman poor, this could have been written decades ago, but on second thought, that’s not true.

Victoria was in her teens when she was romanced by an older man, who used her infatuation to learn about and take over her father’s high-end retail clothing business. The loss did not bring poverty. Now in her late twenties, she lives, quite well, off income from investments purchased with a loan from her trust fund, and occupies her time serving on the boards of charities. However, her relationship with her father was damaged, as was her trust in men. A later arranged marriage to European royalty failed spectacularly when her intended prince ran off with the matchmaker, further lessening her interest in romance. She’s all business, and her goal is to get her family company back.

Dmitri is a former prize fighter, from Russia, now living off the businesses he purchased with his winnings, including a chain of gyms, and the business once owned by Victoria’s father. His rowdiness and womanizing is often in the press, which is making it difficult for him to start a children’s charity in memory of his mentor. Victoria finds Dmitri, and offers him a deal: They’ll pretend to be engaged, to clean up his image, and she’ll use all her charity and society connections to launch his charity. In exchange, he’ll give her the former family business.

After a racy meet cute, this settles down to a ‘marriage of convenience turns into marriage of love’ story. And while our hero is immediately presented as extraordinarily crude and obnoxious, his tender side is already known to the heroine and presented in his introduction. This does not leave much room for character revelations and development. However, there is good tension as our couple give in to propinquity and come to terms with the notion of a long term relationship, something new to each of them. Though he is coming from one-night stands, and she is coming from betrayals, their common obstacle is trust.

I’m not sure I buy how quickly both learn to trust, as usual I’m annoyed by first-time sex being fabulous, and while the minor kinks (public sex and bondage) are narratively appropriate, they still seem a little out of place for people who barely trust each other. Perhaps I’m just being old-fashioned, assuming first-date sex should be vanilla, and my dislike of wealthy characters probably reveals a personal bias. On the other hand, maybe it’s a valid plot hole that wealthy Dmitri could have started offering discounts at his own gyms, instead of going the children’s charity route and relying on other people to fund his dreams, boost his reputation, and lower his taxes. At least he’s only targeting the 1% (yes, that phrase is used).

For all this story’s dated romance trappings, it’s not one that could have been written a few decades ago. His Diamond of Convenience is a woman rescuing a man.  It’s almost a role reversal, in that the hero cannot redeem himself and achieve his goals without the help of the strong heroine that walks into his life, and tells him what to do. She’s the Victorian angel in the house, but she’s also clearly in charge of more than the domestic sphere. He acknowledges as much when he suggests how she can indicate when she is ready for a sexual relationship (though it does not take long), and throughout the story she represents the couple in public.

I appreciate the role reversal, but I still prefer stories where no-one needs to be rescued, and I prefer more ordinary characters, for whom losing or gaining a business has financial consequences. So why did I read this? It was in a free library, any book is better than no book, and it made a couple of hours in an airport much more pleasant. And now it goes to the laundry room in my apartment building, to bring a couple of hours of pleasure to someone else.

 

 

The Playboy’s Proposal

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Cover - Playboy's ProposalThe Playboy’s Proposal, by Ashlee Mallory, is a 2016 publication from Entangled, a romance publisher.

Benny, a doctor, has recently finished her residency, and celebrated by moving into a new high-rise condo. Unfortunately her neighbour, Harry, has a reputation as a local playboy, and often has loud, late parties. He also parks in her spot. Late one night, she visits him in a too-cute meet: While the young and beautiful are enjoying the party, she slinks in, wearing revealing pajamas, disheveled, complete with dinosaur slippers, in a scene that unfortunately reminded me of Rosemary entering the party at the climax of Rosemary’s Baby. Benny gives Harry piece of her mind, and threatens to go to the condo board. For reasons not entirely clear, Harry is promptly smitten with her. Perhaps it is simply seeing a woman not all dressed up or otherwise keen to impress him.

Harry is suddenly required to shed his playboy image. First, the condo board warns him of escalating fines and possible eviction for complaints against him. Second, the ad agency he works for is hoping to land a client with a strong family values outlook, and wants him to settle down. And third, he’s required to look after a young niece for several days. No more parties, and he starts parking in his own spot.

A minor accident means Harry takes his niece to the nearest clinic, and the attending physician is none other than Benny. At the clinic, Harry notes Benny’s plain Jane approach to appearance, and clumsy attempts to flirt with another doctor. He proposes a deal – he’ll package her so she can get a date with the obvious object of her affections, in exchange for her dropping all complaints about his behaviour.

If you know any version of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady, you know what happens next. To help speed Harry’s conversion along, Benny has a large and happy family, who welcome her new friend Harry (and several siblings have been recently married – a series, of course).

The story is definitely light, and heavy on the coincidences, but it’s a fun quick read, tempered with a few serious and sentimental notes. Both characters grow, predictably and rapidly, though it’s nice to see it on both sides, and Benny is a reasonably strong and independent woman. I can accept that her position in her family, and her focus on her career, might have left her less concerned about appearance and social graces – and while Harry teaches her these things, the plot makes it clear that these are secondary to inner qualities. The story is well told, and the heat level is just right. There are several funny scenes where Benny deals with trying to date her doctor friend while Harry both helps and hinders. I’m looking forward to reading about the other members of Benny’s family.

Almost a Family

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Almost a Family coverDonna Alward’s Almost a Family is a self-published romance from 2014. I’m a fan of Alward, and the gentle mix of realism and fantasy in her books. This one did not disappoint, though it sailed dangerously close to cliché a few times.

Molly and Jason were high school sweethearts, and lovers through university, but when Jason proposed, Molly said no. Jason had their life together completely planned, and she had her own dreams.

Molly goes to law school, and settles in Calgary, a successful corporate lawyer. Jason goes to veterinary college, and returns to Fredericton to work at a clinic. Six years pass. Jason pines for Molly, and Molly focuses on her work.

Then Molly’s sister, Kim, is badly injured in a car crash. Kim is a single mother, and asks Molly to come back to Fredericton to look after her three-year-old daughter Sarah. Kim doesn’t tell Molly that Jason now lives next door, and is already helping look after Sarah.

The set-up ensures that Jason and Molly are thrown together, with a shared goal of looking after a child. It’s what Jason always wanted, and a trial run of family life for Molly. She likes it, but the old problem of Jason dictating how their relationship should go reminds her why she left in the first place.

As usual, with a couple who have been apart for years, I wonder why neither of them moved on. Molly has done some non-serious dating, and Alward delicately implies that she has not spent every night alone since Jason. However, Molly does not want a relationship, and is focused on her demanding career. Corporate law offices are not known for encouraging employees, especially women, to have lives apart from work. Jason wants a wife and children, but has made very little effort to find someone else. His devotion is somewhere between romantic and creepy.

With Jason and Molly back together, there are lots of happy memories recalled, and lots of sexual tension and suspense. Our couple repeatedly find themselves a little too comfortable with each other. To stay together, one or both are going to have to compromise, but who, and how much? I was afraid it was going to be Molly, giving everything up for Jason, since she so readily takes on the mother role, and starts to doubt the path she is on.

Molly starts off as a successful career woman who enjoys expensive hotels, fine clothes, and expensive make up. She has no idea how to look after kids and is challenged by baking cookies. In a few short weeks she decides there are things more important than a high-paying career. It always bothers me when a plot pushes a working woman into being a proper wife and mother. However, Molly’s reconsideration of priorities is organically motivated by a sobering and wonderfully understated plot point, and accommodating Jason and his plans is the last thing on her mind.

In the end, both characters make decisions based on growth they have experienced, and the compromise is more complex than I feared it might be. Unfortunately, the final scene, set at an airport, also has clichés I’ve seen in too many movies, and you don’t have to be reading the book on a flight, as I was, to be aware if how unlikely it is to be heading for security screening when they call boarding for your flight.

In among the too-cute kid scenes and too-good-to-be-true family moments (family sledding invariably includes crying from cold, tiredness, and/or injuries), the platonic relationship between Jason and Kim, Molly’s sister, stands out for its realism and depth. These two people deeply care for each other – heck, they love each other – but as friends, notwithstanding an awkward moment or two that makes their relationship more real. The friend relationship also complicates the relationships between the siblings and the lovers.

One of the reasons I love romances is that they show happy endings for lovers – it does give one hope. Family reconciliations, in this case between the sisters, are another common and hopeful feature. In Almost a Family, Alward shows a third happy situation – a close relationship between a man and a woman who are friends. Jason and Molly have their romantic HEA, but it was the love between Jason and Kim that left me weepy.

As I write this, the book is free on Amazon (click the title above), and if you are weary of millionaire muscled heroes or scene after scene of sex with little else (or even if you are not), I strongly recommend it as an introduction to Alward.

Royal’s Bride

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Royal's Bride cover imageAfter reading Kat Martin’s Royal’s Bride, a 2009 book recently republished by the upscale Harlequin imprint Mira Books, I had two thoughts. First, this is great, and second, this wonderful mix of melodrama, passion, and realism seems familiar. That’s because I read another Martin, Heartless, about a year and half ago, and loved it too.

The story opens in 1854. The three sons (a trilogy, of course) of the Duke of Bransford have gathered at his death-bed. The estate has fallen on hard times, and the Duke has arranged for his oldest son, Royal, to marry Jocelyn. Jocelyn’s family has money, and by marrying him she’ll become a duchess.

Royal’s been out of the country for a decade, after looking after the family holdings in Barbados, and is reluctant to marry a woman he’s never met. But when he rescues her from a carriage accident on the way to his castle, it’s love at first sight. Unfortunately, the lady in the carriage is not his intended. Lily is a poor cousin and good friend of Jocelyn’s, living with Jocelyn’s family and sent early to prepare everything for the rather fussy Jocelyn.

Lily is technically a lady, in the same class as Jocelyn, but after the death of her parents she spent some time among the poor. Though she’s not opposed to marriage, her goal is to open a hat shop, and support herself. Royal admires this, establishing himself as a modern progressive hero. He is no stranger to improving oneself through industry. He desperately needs Jocelyn’s money, as his late father incurred large debts under odd circumstances, but he’s also engaged  in projects such as starting up a brewery.

Thus the triangle is established – Royal must marry Jocelyn, but loves Lily. Lily loves Royal, but knows it can never be. And Jocelyn wants her title. Then the plot thickens: Jocelyn can tell Royal has little interest in her, and begins an affair with Christopher. She reasons, quite logically to my mind, that men sleep around before marriage, and even have mistresses, so why shouldn’t she have a little fun, before and after her marriage, especially since her future husband seems uninterested in her. And Lily, aware of Jocelyn’s activities with Christopher, feels less guilty than she otherwise would about time with Royal, but still keeps her activities secret from Jocelyn, assuming that the arranged marriage will go ahead.

Meanwhile, Royal learns that his father was defrauded by a con artist, and while no legal action can be taken against him, Lily has memories of cons, and an uncle with connections among less respectable folks. A scam the scammer plot unfolds while our couples try to sort out their relationships. The possibility of Royal getting back some of his father’s lost money might free him to marry Lily, but Jocelyn wants her title, and while Chris enjoys her company, he does not want to marry her, as he cannot give her what she wants.

The women are strong and determined characters, and Martin does a great job of making the ambitious Jocelyn both sympathetic and unpleasant. The men are decent, and roguish without being repulsive. The plot nicely addresses questions like why now (often unanswered when a couple suddenly come together), and backs up the meet cute with solid reasons for our couple to be attracted to each other.

The settings move from society balls to grimy taverns, and every single plot thread is tied up in a neat ribbon, complete with an unnecessary epilogue that sets up the next story.  That’s excessive, but tolerable. It’s a fun, fast-paced read that seems shorter than its 400 pages, probably due to the multiple sources of suspense, and having two couples doubles the opportunity for delicious and mostly scandalous steamy scenes.

The MacGregors: Rebellion

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Cover - Nora Roberts - RebellionI’ve never read Roberts before, though I know the name. I didn’t associate her with Romance novels, but instead with the sort of works published by Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susan. That may sound a bit snobby, particularly coming from a fan of category romance, not known for its great literature, but I prefer works that are a little less sweeping, dramatic, and long. The MacGregors: Rebellion is over 300 pages of sweeping drama, with a curious conclusion (which I give away, so stop here if you don’t like spoilers).

The story opens in 1735, in Scotland, where young Serena witnesses the rape of her mother by a British officer, and we’re off to a bad start. I know bad things happen, and this is to give Serena more than the usual reasons to dislike British men, but presenting this as prologue rather than a flashback makes it more immediate than it needs to be, and it sets an unpleasant tone for the story. Perhaps that tone is justified. The plot revolves around the Jacobite rising of 1745, which led to much bloodshed. Roberts has done a lot work to incorporate real events into her story, including the flight of Charles to the Isle of Skye, but it’s a grim setting for romance.

After the prologue, the story jumps to 1745, and Serena’s brother returns home with an English friend, Brigham. He is attracted to Serena, and she wants nothing to do with him. Serena’s a strong woman, which is good, but Brigham does not take no for an answer. Literally. So begins a tiresome courtship, where she is repeatedly overwhelmed by him, and he constantly pushes past her boundaries. This is an older story, from 1988, and perhaps that explains the unenlightened approach.

Apart from being unable to control himself around Serena (sigh), Brigham is a decent sort – intelligent, kind to her siblings, and so on. As proof of his goodness, he tracks down and kills the man who raped Serena’s mother. And I am supposed to be happy about this? Frontier justice, and winning a woman by killing another man?

Serena and Brigham have their wedding relatively early, and the rest of the story is the gruesome outcome of the Battle of Culloden. Serena and Brigham flee to America, which solves the problem of her not wanting to become a courtly lady, but means the American Revolution clouds their later years. Perhaps a lesson of the story is that romance happens anywhere and everywhere, but the story’s emphasis on the unpleasant realities of war distracts from the romance, such as it is.

In happier news, I won a free tote bag from Mills and Boon, for retweeting one of their announcements! It’s just a tote bag, but it’s always fun to win something. And, half-way through the year, I’m still on track for working an hour every week on Romance 1. I did miss a week, a few weeks ago, but made it up yesterday. An hour a week is a long way from the eight hours a day that Nora Roberts apparently puts in, but for some reason a lesson I learned from archery training comes to mind: Don’t worry about where you hit the target, just work on consistency.

The Little Old Lady Behaving Badly

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Cover - The Little Old Lady Behaving BadlyA friend is convinced we need more romance novels featuring characters in their 50s and 60s, instead of their 20s and 30s. In other words, our ages, as opposed to the ages of our children. I disagree. I reject a simplistic model of literary identification, where we identify with characters who are like us.

A major pleasure of literature (and film) is identifying with characters who are not like us (and a challenge for all authors is to encourage that identification).  Second, while we grudgingly acknowledge that our bodies are not quite they same as they were decades earlier, we generally don’t think differently. We may approach a new relationship with some experience in matters of the heart, but that rarely makes it any easier. It always “feels like the first time.” (My goodness, is that song really 40 years old?) And it has not escaped my notice that the Harlequin Next imprint did not last.

As an example of a romance featuring older characters, I was introduced to The Little Old Lady Behaving Badly, by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg (and translated from Swedish by Rod Bradbury). This is one in a series of stories featuring The League of Pensioners, a group of elderly folks who rob banks and commit other crimes to stave off boredom and help others.

The plot is a series of capers, from robbing a bank to defrauding Russian oligarchs, mixed with various other endeavors to improve life for older folks and low-paid health care workers. These include opening a restaurant and creating a dating app. There are also two romance sub-plots.

Despite the large cast and many activities, or perhaps because of them, the pace occasionally sags over the almost 500 pages of this book. On the first page, some awkward character introductions suggest I should have started with the first book in the series, The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules.

Capers are distinguished by humour, but after too many close calls with resolutions in the tradition of cozy mysteries, attempts to build suspense are not taken seriously. There is some satisfaction in seeing a feisty older woman raise the rip-off stakes after ill-mannered mobsters ridicule her age and appearance. This is one of several fun episodes.

Much of the story milks the joke of seniors being unexpectedly devious and clever, and while it’s good to remind folks that not all seniors are contentedly slurping down mashed peas in nursing homes, constantly bringing that up as the contrasting normal actually reinforces the stereotype. The romance subplots are less comic, more realistic and therefore more effective at reminding readers that romance is for all ages – if anyone needed reminding. I had no problem identifying with Martha and her romantic concerns, though she is several decades older than me.

This is a cute but not entirely satisfying book. I’m sufficiently intrigued to consider reading the first one, as I expect that might have more character depth. It may also have the first meeting of a couple who finally formalize their relationship in this story. Meanwhile, here are some other possibilities for romances featuring older couples:  http://www.booklistreader.com/2015/10/01/book-lists/age-is-just-a-number-romance-novels-with-older-couples/