More Alward Cowboys: Crooked Valley Ranch

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Cover - The Cowboy's Christmas GiftSeveral years ago I read (and loved) The Cowboy’s Homecoming, third book in the Crooked Valley Ranch series. In my review, I praised both the story and the series. Now I’ve finally read the first two: The Cowboy’s Christmas Gift, and The Cowboy’s Valentine.

The Cowboy’s Christmas Gift has a slightly misleading title. Duke isn’t a cowboy, he’s a soldier. He’s wounded, discharged, and has conditionally inherited 1/3 of a ranch from his grandfather. He hasn’t been there since he was a child, and the foreman, Carrie, was a fellow elementary school classmate. There’s instant attraction, but Alward maintains sexual tension for a while, which I appreciated, and the eventual bedroom scene (actually, rug in front of a wood stove, sigh) is described discreetly.

A relationship between employer and employee is awkward, which the characters acknowledge, and as it develops they try and keep it secret. Carrie’s financial situation is not great, thanks to family medical expenses. (As a Canadian, I find it sad how often medical expenses come up as a problem in American romances.) Duke is not sure if he’ll stay on at the ranch, which gives us the book’s narrative arc, and Carrie’s job (and the jobs of others) is in jeopardy unless he and his siblings decide to keep the ranch, which gives us the series arc.

The plot escalates with a romance trope I’m not fond of, but at least Alward handles it slightly more realistically than many writers. This book also introduces the characters who will have lead roles in the later books, and contains the meet for Quinn and Lacey. Which brings me to The Cowboy’s Valentine. I loved this book, and it’s my favourite of the three in this series.

alwardvalentineQuinn is the ranch manager, which is somehow different from being the foreman. As a city-slicker, I find all this business side of ranching stuff exotic. Quinn’s a widower, with a daughter around five. Quinn and Lacey met when Lacy came for a family Thanksgiving dinner at the ranch, and they argued over how to mash the potatoes. She wanted to use a ricer instead of a masher. I immediately liked her. (Although a little online research led me to discover that what I call a ricer is actually a food mill.)

Lacey returns to the ranch in January. Her life is not going as planned. She’s divorced, in debt (medical expenses again), and just lost her accounting job. Her 1/3 ownership of the ranch gives her somewhere to stay, at least temporarily, and means she’s frequently sharing space with Quinn, who has an office in the main house. She’s also seeing Quinn’s daughter frequently.

Quinn and Lacey are both wounded people. Quinn lost his beloved wife, and he’s struggling to care for his daughter who lost her mother. Lacey’s having a crisis of confidence, between the collapse of her marriage and the loss of her job. Refreshingly, the end of her marriage was not completely the ex’s fault. The early bickering between Quinn and Lacey is a way to communicate when neither can admit attraction, and even when they admit it, sort of, with a fabulous first kiss about halfway through the story, they are reluctant to enter into a relationship.

Amber is at that all too brief stage when children are impossibly cute. She’s obviously a catalyst for bringing Quinn and Lacey together, and a source of humour. When Quinn is injured in an accident, Amber’s reaction, and Quinn and Lacey’s reactions to that, had me sobbing (as discreetly as possible) in the mall food court. I’m sure I wasn’t this sentimental when I was younger, but that’s not a bad thing. There’s a happy ending of course, and the best possible outcome: nobody gives anything up, and the characters learn to live with their wounds.

Although these stories can be read as stand alones (since I did that with The Cowboy’s Homecoming), the amount of overlap means they work better when all are read, and in order. I enjoyed the Cowboy’s Homecoming more the second time through, as knew the context and secondary characters. Perhaps I need to start becoming a more organized reader.

Love and Lust: Welcome to Sea Port

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Welcome to Sea Port is a series from Katrina Jackson. I read the first three: From Scratch, Inheritance, and Small Town Secrets. The series features mostly Black characters, and a variety of relationships: From Scratch is a threesome (MMF), Inheritance is male-female couple, and Secrets is two women.

Sea Port is a small, remote, and declining town, which is neither a port nor near any water. In this and a few other descriptions, I suspect Jackson is parodying the small town setting of many romance novels. In an attempt to revive the town, newcomers are offered abandoned buildings to start new businesses, and this brings in new people. It’s a fine premise for setting up meets, although in these three books there are two people taking advantage of the small business program, and three new city hires. A subtle reminder that the most efficient job creation program is direct government hiring?

Mary, in From Scratch, has moved to Sea Port to start a bakery. She’s reinventing herself after spending seven years teaching literature at a university. I’ve spent a lot of time at universities, and Jackson’s observations about academic careers and people (faculty and students) are spot on. I particularly liked the sleazy male professor Mary briefly dated – we’ve all met at least one of them. I was not surprised to learn from Jackson’s Amazon bio that she is indeed a college professor. The observations about running a bakery, on the other hand, are less realistic (and bagels are not “fried balls of dough,” though perhaps the flustered character who thought that was confused). However, the entrepreneurship careers common to many romance novel characters succeed at a much higher rate in novels than in real life, and perhaps that is part of having happy endings.

Mary’s not just starting a new career, she’s also changed how she dresses, and generally has a new and happier outlook on life. So when she meets the town’s fire chief and police officer, and is instantly attracted to both of them, she figures why not have both. As for the men, they’ve been buddies forever, and at least one of them is bisexual, so they slip easily from friends to lovers (leaving unanswered the questions of why they’ve never been attracted to the same woman, or each other, before). The relationship leads to a problem for Mary’s new business, but it’s easily resolved.

Inheritance begins with a prologue featuring Mary and her lovers in bed. They remain a presence in this book, and the next. We soon meet Lorraine, who has moved to Sea Port to run the library. The library is being rebuilt, by local contractor Jonah, who moved back to town after his father died. Jonah meets Lorraine, and instantly has an erection. Her response to him is similar, and they soon discover she has an exhibitionist streak (although Mary and her lovers are hardly discrete). Both of our couple have parent issues, both quickly resolved, but there is a sweet subplot involving the library garden.

Small Town Secrets features Sully, who moved to town to start a coffee shop. The high point of her week is receiving deliveries from the bakery, brought by Bria. But lately Willie, the mayor and Sully’s best friend from university, has been paying attention to Sully’s attentions to Bria. Bria has also been crushing on Sully, but when their relationship starts to heat up, Willie wants them to cool it. There are subplots involving other relationships in town, past and present.

The instant attractions, the always horny characters, the relatively challenge-free relationships, and graphic sexual details in what might be considered gratuitous sex scenes all put these books firmly in the erotica category. The writing is rough at times. For example, when a character replied to something, I had to flip back a few screens to see what the question was, and a character who I thought had moved to Sea Port with Mary had in fact only helped her move. The occasional description in brackets made me wonder if it was a note to be expanded or better integrated before publication. However, the open-minded community, the humour, and the sweet and sentimental moments (generally involving secondary characters) were enjoyable, and I found myself skimming past the sex scenes to find more of that.

It’s all taken care of: The Marriage Pact

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sotis1The Marriage Pact, Wendy Sotis, 2018

Several years ago, Sotis started writing Austen fan fiction, and has published many variations of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship, with more promised, but The Marriage Pact is an original Regency romance.

James and Celia have been friends for years, due to connections between their families, and as the story opens they are already attracted to each other. She is seventeen, and not looking forward to her first season, thanks to a pushy mother and a generous income likely to attract all manner of suitors, when she’d prefer to marry for love.

James, older, and heir to an earldom, has a similar desire to marry for love, but is often faced with women seeking only to compromise him, to get his title. He has a mistress, but with Celia coming on to the marriage mart he is starting to think about her a new way. Unfortunately, he learns that plans have already been made for him to marry Celia, at the end of her season, and he is not pleased to learn she has lied to him while participating in the scheme. Celia, of course, has no knowledge of the arrangement.

The core issue is a misunderstanding, and it seems thin material to sustain the story. And, since, this is a friends to lovers story, we miss the meet and initial realization that this person may be someone special. However, there is a lot of backstory to reveal how the marriage pact came about, and its conditions. The latter part of the story addresses the conditions. The plot is enriched by subplots such as a cousin’s pregnancy, unreliable friends, the scheming mistress, and a friend of James who fakes attraction to Celia with the intentions of protecting her and encouraging James.

From my reader perspective, James is decidedly unheroic, thinking the worst of his friend with scant evidence, then being slow to accept his mistake and apologize. However, one can enjoy a little Schadenfreude in watching him suffer as he realizes his mistake. From my writer perspective, this book is great example of the importance of having a solid backstory when plotting, and how to reveal it to sustain pacing and interest. There is also good use of repetition in dialogue and structure. The heat level is sweet – nothing more than a kiss – but sexual tension simmers in touches, incidental and intentional, and more humorously in Celia’s observations of her mother’s alterations to the necklines of her gowns.

I watched Pride and Prejudice and Zombies recently, so I’m not up for more Austen fan fiction any time soon, but am looking forward to the next work from Sotis in this series.

More or Less Contemporary Reads

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Now that I’m all caught up reviewing my historical reads, here’s what else I’ve been reading. An assortment of contemporaries, with a little suspense, erotica, a sweet, and even a romantic threesome.

Tell Me No Lies, Kathryn Shay, Harlequin Super Romance, 2006
Cease Fire, Janie Crouch, Harlequin Intrigue, 2018
Mystery Date, Crystal Green, Harlequin Blaze, 2013
Mr. Unforgettable, Karina Bliss, 2018
Mine: MMF Bisexual Menage Romance, Chloe Lynn Ellis, 2018
Concealed in my Heart, Regina Puckett, 2013
Sweet Spot, Amy Knupp, 2016
Sweet Nothings, Natasha Lake, 2016


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Tell Me No Lies, Kathryn Shay, Harlequin Super Romance, 2006

I’m not sure what to make of this one. Tessa and Dan are happily married, with children, but there are a few hints of something amiss. Then a figure from Tessa’s criminal past shows up. She’s kept her past a secret from Dan, and tries to continue to hide it, leading to complications in their relationship. The story is like a second chance romance, only it begins with the disintegration of the initial relationship, instead of revealing that in flashbacks. Foregrounding the break up takes away from the romance, and I had trouble accepting the premise. Yes, people may keep secrets, but the story makes clear that Tessa’s arrest and conviction was newsworthy at the time it happened. Apparently Dan never checked his wife’s name online – and he’s a District Attorney. Dan’s also less than heroic when her past is revealed. Although I did not find this a satisfying romance, once I suspended disbelief about the premise, and stopped expecting a more conventional story, it was a well-written family drama that had elements of Cape Fear.

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Cease Fire, Janie Crouch, Harlequin Intrigue, 2018

This is one in a series of stories about a bad guy killing members of an elite police agency. The characters have been introduced earlier, and I felt I was missing something by not having read the earlier books. The core plot is one-night stand leads to pregnancy. The relationship is complicated by the heroine’s past.

Keira is a successful businesswoman, who also runs a private shelter and career training facility for abused women, but she used to be a stripper, and endured an abusive marriage to the son of a wealthy and powerful family. Her status as a strong heroine is diminished by her delayed inheritance, which allows her character to have both the sordid past and the respectable present.

Roman is a member of the agency, but his status as an alpha hero is diminished by his initial acceptance of his mother’s concern for the reputation of his powerful and wealthy family. A few months later, Roman learns that Keira may be a target of the mysterious killer, and that she is pregnant, so they reconnect. There’s lots of action, which means less room for romance, and the surprise baby plot tends to push characters together.

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Mystery Date, Crystal Green, Harlequin Blaze, 2013

Leigh is a TV cook, who has auctioned off a home-cooked meal as part of a fund-raiser for a sorority. A mysterious but obviously wealthy person has purchased it, and when she arrives at his mansion, he communicates only by phone. Several dates follow, with escalating sexual activity revolving around voyeurism, blindfolds, and so on. Silly steamy fun.

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Mr. Unforgettable, Karina Bliss, 2018

Luke is a former competitive swimmer and shy billionaire property developer, wounded by his divorce. Liz is a small town mayor. Her husband, the former mayor, died two years ago, and her public and private life is dedicated to preserving his memory. They meet when his company wants to build a widely opposed children’s camp, and spend discreet time together when she needs to secretly learn how to swim. He gives lessons in exchange for chess games. They become friends (with flirting and sexual tension both in the pool and over the chess board), then friends with benefits…  I’m not keen on billionaire stories, but Luke is relatively ordinary, and Liz doesn’t need money. A couple in their thirties, uninterested in having children, and the challenges of romance for a politician, are less common and enjoyable aspects of this relaxed and well-told romance.

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Mine: MMF Bisexual Menage Romance, Chloe Lynn Ellis, 2018

Yes, that really is the title. Three childhood friends, Jack, Dylan, and Cate, are reunited when Kate’s grandfather dies and leaves his Boston townhouse to them. When I read Menage on 34th Street, I complained about the sex. There is lots here as well, but it’s slightly tamer, and considerably more contextual. Who’s doing what to whom illustrates the progress of the relationship, which has a realistic time frame. The characters react in slightly different ways to embracing their sexuality, but everyone is open-minded. For all the detailed steamy sex scenes, this is essentially a friends to lovers story, with three people instead of two. There’s an HEA ending, and a coda that would be cliche in a more conventional relationship, but here it is heartwarming.

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Concealed in my Heart, Regina Puckett, 2013

Like Tell Me No Lies, this is a less conventional romance. It’s set in the late 1960s, though I was not sure why. It has the simpler time appeal of no internet and no cell phones, but the plot may have worked better in the 1930s or 1940s, given the plot’s reliance on movies and film publicity as major social events. Charity is a young, naive, recently married actor who has luckily landed the lead role in a football romance movie. She becomes close friends with her supportive co-star David and his wife. Charity’s husband leaves, and David’s wife dies in childbirth. David flees in grief, leaving Charity to look after the baby for eight months (though she stays in his house, and he pays all the bills). When he returns, they need to sort out their relationship, if any. It’s a sweet and sentimental story of friends to lovers, though some of the relationship timing and plot points are odd.

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Sweet Spot, Amy Knupp, 2016

Sweet Spot is the second in a multi-author series of stories set at new or renovated businesses on Hale street, in Nashville. Hunter comes home to take over the family business, a money-losing bar. The one bright spot is a smart and attractive bartender, Kennedy. Kennedy used to work in marketing, but two years ago she caught her boyfriend cheating on her…with her friend…at her office. She lost her job, her boyfriend, her friend,  hurt her career, and ended up with  large debts, thanks to a house she and her boyfriend were renovating. Now she has new friends, who have just opened a bakery and want her marketing skills, as well as a hot new boss. Things heat up fairly quickly, but she’s having trouble trusting again. A few steamy scenes, lots of light banter between her and her friends, and many mentions of mouth-watering munchies.

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Sweet Nothings, Natasha Lake, 2016

This is another Hale street story. Free-spirited Ivy promised to work at the bakery for a year, and the year is nearly up. She wants to find a replacement baker, and decides the best way to discreetly find one is to attend catered events.  Burke, the staid owner of a hotel under renovation, is trying to project an image of respectability for the re-opening, after being left at the altar by his fiance, a local scandal. He decides the best way to do this is to attend charity events and fundraisers, but has neither the time nor the inclination to date. So it’s a relationship of convenience that becomes real, and both hero and heroine need to overcome the past relationship failures. The plot works better than it sounds in my summary, and the characters are more solid than in Sweet Spot. As in Sweet Spot, supporting and continuing characters add interest.

Historical Reads

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I am behind in reviews, thanks to a busy month which has had more opportunity for reading, but less for writing. I praised historicals in my last post, have read many recently, and I’m going to try and catch up on reviewing them here. Click a title in the list to jump to that review. Hello Stranger, Lisa Kleypas, Avon, 2018 Heart of Fire, Kat Martin, Mira (Harlequin), 2008 Traitor’s Kiss / Lover’s Kiss, Mary Blayney, Bantam, 2008 The Ice Captain’s Daughter, Suzanne G. Rogers, 2014 Jessamine’s Folly, Suzanne G. Rogers, 2014 Lord Livesey’s Bluestocking, Audrey Harrison, 2018 The Complicated Earl, Audrey Harrison, 2014 The Duke’s Cautious Governess, Fanny Finch, 2018 The Love List, Deb Marlowe, 2013 Hello Stranger, Lisa Kleypas, Avon, 2018. Dr. Garrett Gibson, the only female doctor in England (inspired by Dr. Elizabeth Garrett), connects with Ethan Ransom, a former police officer and now possibly a spy. They met in a previous book in the series, which apparently explains why he is stalking her when this story starts. She’s a virgin but DTF, so we get a relationship largely driven by sexual tension and desire. Both characters are strong, and rescue each other. The couple get tied up in a political terrorist subplot, which threatens to overwhelm the romance plot at times. Lots of action and Victorian detail. Heart of Fire, Kat Martin, Mira (Harlequin), 2008. After enjoying Heartless and Royal’s Bride, Kat Martin is a name I look for on the historicals shelf. Coralee, a viscount’s daughter, writes for a ladies magazine. When her sister commits suicide, Coralee suspects an Earl, and contrives to enter his employ, under a false identity, to learn the truth. Romance blossoms, but when her identity is revealed, he’s forced to marry her. Coralee finds herself in a loveless marriage, and someone is trying to kill her. The suspense aspect is a significant part of the story, and the sister’s death and the circumstances around the marriage cast shadows over the story. blayney Traitor’s Kiss / Lover’s Kiss, Mary Blayney, Bantam, 2008 Two books in one, so two reviews in one. Traitor’s Kiss opens in France, in 1813, with the resourceful and mysterious Charlotte arranging for Lord Gabriel Pennistan to escape from prison. She’s not interested in the politics that put him there, or him (at first), but he becomes very interested in her. Lots of tension, romantic, sexual, and otherwise, in the earlier part of the story. Later, in England, the plot takes a more conventional tone, but Charlotte and her goals dominate the plot. Lover’s Kiss has a similar story structure, but this time the hero dominates the story, and the sexual tension is more drawn out. Michael Garrett, an unemployed soldier, finds a naked and unconscious woman in the forest. His rescue of Lady Olivia Pennistan is complicated by the need to keep her kidnapping a secret and her reputation intact. Michael’s subsequent employment at her brother’s estate, in recognition of poor security there, allows the relationship to continue in a more conventional fashion. rogers The Ice Captain’s Daughter, Suzanne G. Rogers, 2014 The cover image notwithstanding, this story is sweeter that those above, as well as lighter, later, and without a suspense subplot. There is no sex, but there are phones. Jillian is en route to London (with her maid) when their carriage is attacked. She receives a minor bullet wound, but manages to stab one of her assailants with a hatpin. Lord Logan, staying alone at a hunting cottage on his estate, comes to her rescue, bandages her thigh wound, and they stay the night (chastely) in his cottage, thanks to a severe storm. Her virtue compromised, her relatives insist they marry. She’s attracted to him, but refuses to have him marry her out of obligation, and carries on to London. Logan, who had previously rejected the notion of marriage after an engagement gone wrong, decides to pursue Jillian in London, but his former fiancé is eager to try again, and does not care for competition. Notwithstanding the opening attempt on her life, the stakes are relatively low, but this is a sweet story that comes together nicely, and even includes a happy ending for one of the bad guys. rogers2 Jessamine’s Folly, Suzanne G. Rogers, 2014 Another sweet Edwardian historical, more complicated than The Ice Captain’s Daughter, but still concerned primarily with manners and propriety. The sudden death of Jessamine’s parents leaves her without a dowry, and the estate is entailed away from her. After enduring a few years of cruelty from relatives (reminiscent of Cinderella), she finds employment as a companion/governess to Lord Kirkendale’s sister. Sparks fly between the Lord and Jessamine, but she is conscious of her standing (thanks in part to other staff), and he is obliged to marry another. The plot is enriched with subplots of the sister’s romance, a scandalous aunt, and scheming cousins and rivals in both families. harrison1

Lord Livesey’s Bluestocking, Audrey Harrison, 2018

Phoebe doesn’t quite fit in with society. She’s not conventionally attractive, wears glasses, and has a reputation as a bluestocking, thanks to being intelligent. She has no need to marry, and little desire to. But, at the request of her family, she spends a couple of weeks at the estate of Lord Livesey. Livesey is a young widower with three girls, who has largely withdrawn from society after the suicide of his wife six years ago. His sister and aunt convince him that his girls need a mother, and arrange for half-a-dozen eligible ladies, along with an equal number of single but less-appealing-than-Livesey men, to spend two weeks at his estate. Livesey decides not to follow his heart, and selects Lady Jane for his bride, but the aunt keeps Phoebe in view, and a few assumptions add complications. Sweet and light, with a strong heroine and good writing. harrison2 The Complicated Earl, Audrey Harrison, 2014 I went from what appears to be Harrison’s latest to her first, sold with the notice that it was professionally proof read after the initial release. Isabelle grew up with loving parents, but found her suitors distasteful, and has settled down with a cousin, planning to live independently. Now her brother is planning to marry the sister of the Earl of Standish, Tom. Tom is cynical of marriage, having witnessed his mother’s affairs, but kept that from his sister. When problems arise in the planned marriage, Isabelle and Tom work together to resolve matters, and both reconsider their view of marriage. But her brothers attempt to rush her into to marriage, concerned they may given her too much freedom, leads to problems, and a previously rejected suitor leads to a suspense subplot. Not as sweet or as light as Lord Livesey’s Bluestocking, but still a good read. finch1 The Duke’s Cautious Governess, Fanny Finch, 2018 Lady Agnes lost her mother many years ago, and when her father dies unexpectedly she is penniless and shunned by relatives. She finds work as a governess to a spoiled little girl, the young sister of a Duke. The Duke and his sister also lost their parents early and unexpectedly. While Agnes was taught how to run an estate, the Duke was not, and she winds up teaching him as well – everything from how to manage the staff to how to host a ball. The ball is a great sequence. Although balls and associated events are common in historicals, this is the first one I’ve read from the perspective of a hostess, as she tries to keep guests entertained and sober, and breaks up fights. The conflict and resolution are predictable (and no less enjoyable for that), but the subplot of the late mother is dark, so this is sweet but not that light. Having the epilogue as an online bonus is mildly annoying, and unusually, the story is almost completely from the perspective of Agnes. marlowe The Love List, Deb Marlowe, 2013 Brynne Wilmott’s father has arranged for her to be married to an evil man, so she runs away to a home for women. But her troubles are just beginning. Someone is planning to republish an updated version of Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies, with her and some of her acquaintances in it, for both personal revenge and political gain. Meanwhile, the Duke of Aldmere, who rescued Brynne from her nominal fiancé at a ball, is looking for his missing brother, who is somehow involved in the new book. Lots of action and suspense as the couple work together, lots of time in the seamier side of London, and we are back where this list started, with political terrorism in the Victorian age. As this list makes clear, historical romances, even limited more-or-less to Regency, have a variety of heat levels and plot structures. I appreciate those that show me famous figures, and provide insights into lesser known aspects of Victorian life, and escapes from peril are fun. However, as with contemporary romances, my preferred reading is towards sweet and light.

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.