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.

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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/

What We Find

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What We Find coverJust like Sleepless in Manhattan, What We Find, from Robyn Carr, is a 2016 mirabooks imprint from Harlequin, and first in a series. However, What We Find is drama, not comedy. No worries about too much rom-com here. Instead, I found the book alternately frustrating and wonderful.

Maggie is a thirty-six-year-old neurosurgeon in Denver. She’s facing a malpractice suit, and various legal and financial complications from a collapsed group practice. She’s been dumped by her boyfriend of three years, after an accidental pregnancy followed by a miscarriage. Needing a break, she heads for her father’s rural campground, but her planned one week break extends into months after her father has a heart attack. Though it is early in season, the campground already has a resident of several weeks, a mysterious stranger named Cal.

The story is almost 400 pages, and gets off to a slow start. The opening chapter has multiple flashbacks to fill in various aspects of Maggie’s back story, and the plot occasionally detours to dwell on some aspect of character, or introduce characters who I suspect will turn up in later stories.

Once our couple have met, and are thrown together, things get more interesting. Maggie and Cal begin a relationship based largely on mutual sexual desire, and I like that Maggie is a woman who has enjoyed her share of sex, unlike many romantic heroines. I’m also amused that she’s long found the campground a good source of temporary male company, in part because my own Romance One heroine runs a campground, and takes the same pleasure in it.

The casual relationship that becomes something more is a common approach, but it requires a good explanation as to why this person, why now? Too often there is something magical about the other person that is never satisfactorily explained, but in this case it’s not just the other person, but the characters arriving at a point in their lives where they are ready for a more serious relationship and better able to choose a partner.

In this middle portion of the story, the driving question is how this relationship with Cal will go, complicated by the related questions of:

  • Who is Cal, where is he going, and will he come back?
  • What will happen with the malpractice suit?
  • When will Maggie go back to work?

This part of the story works really well, and I enjoyed reading it. But as matters started to get resolved, I became frustrated again. I’m not sure whether it was too many colourful characters, or too many plot detours, but the last straw was the discovery that a minor character’s back story included getting a free house. That’s when it dawned on me that everyone in this story is very rich.

Maggie is a neurosurgeon, and though bankruptcy is occasionally mentioned as a threat she faces, she never seems short of cash, and is able to leave work for an indefinite period to mull over her life. Family money paid for her education, so she never had the burden of student loans. The campground wasn’t the source of family wealth – she has her small-town hard-working simple life father to give her life advice, but also has a wealthy urban step-father, to give her money (and more life advice).

The campground isn’t poor though. It provides a comfortable living, to the point that the uninsured costs of a heart attack warrant no more than a mention that it’s costly. Then there’s Cal, who is also able to take months off to mull over his life, again thanks to unearned money, and, like Maggie, is able to return to the workforce on his own terms. Cal’s background, like Maggie’s, manages to combine wealth and homespun roots.

I’ve nothing against wealthy characters, but when they haven’t earned it, and a significant part of their character growth is deciding to slow down and enjoy life, because it’s the simple things that matter, I’m more exasperated than sympathetic. Maggie and Cal are wounded people with serious problems, but they are also extremely privileged, and they are blind to that.

What We Find is great romantic fantasy, with strong believable characters, but it’s also pastoral fantasy, supported weakly, and in any event a contradictory notion. A relationship is a particular and personal social contract, in that you exchange personal authority for other benefits. It is the opposite of the state of nature, the antidote to a life which Hobbes tells us is not just “nasty, brutish, and short,” as often mentioned, but also “solitary.” What We Find is trying to have it both ways, celebrating both the tamed and the untamed.

It’s unfortunate that the medical and legal realism, and the gritty tragedies of the characters lives, are undercut by their fantastical wealth. Apart from that significant flaw (and the sometimes leisurely pace), this is an enjoyable and well crafted story.

Sleepless in Manhattan

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Sarah Morgan’s Sleepless in Manhattan is another recent (2016) Harlequin that is discreet about its publisher. Like Lord of the Privateers and its Mira Books imprint, this one’s www.hqnbooks.com site redirects to Harlequin. This book is also part of a series, though the first, and it’s another second chance romance.

As the title suggests, this is a contemporary, set in New York City. In Morgan’s Forward, she notes that she loves New York, and that when she visits, “I always feel as if I’m walking onto a film set” because so many of her favourite movies are set there. I’ve never visited, but from seeing New York in so many movies it’s hard to believe it’s anything other than a film set, so I like her take on the city. And she says the setting worked liked another character. So I had high expectations for the portrayal of the city, but unfortunately they were not met.

Cities, especially New York, have both magic and grit. In Wish Me Tomorrow, I got a strong sense of that, particularly in the character’s residences. The heroine lives in a small shared apartment; the hero has a decent place in a building with a cranky elevator and power outages. The New York of Sleepless in Manhattan has the magic, but not the grit. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the residences.

The hero, Jake, lives in a modern Manhattan apartment where floor to ceiling windows provide a fabulous view of the Hudson River and the Brooklyn bridge. Paige lives in a Brooklyn brownstone, renovated into three apartments and owned by her brother, Matt, who lives in the upper two floors. Paige and her friend Eva share a one floor apartment, and their friend Frankie lives in the lower unit (and they all work together). The three women and Matt routinely get together on the lush rooftop garden for movie nights (often joined by Matt’s best friend – you guessed it – Jake). I’m sure places like these exist, but this is the New York of movies and dreams and very very rich people. A brownstone in Brooklyn is at least a couple of million dollars, and it’s questionable that Matt’s bought and renovated the place on his landscape architect salary (2017 average $56,738).

The cozy living arrangement, and limited use of other locations, gives the story a small town feel at odds with the setting, and weakens the romance story line. There are eight million stories in the naked city, but this one is about two people who met as teens, are already in love, already know all about each other, and see each other socially.

Just in case you are wondering where the eight million stories is from…

Since I’m going over what disappointed me about the story, I’ll also mention that the usual suspects were present – hero frequently has meaningless sex to distract himself from woman he really loves, heroine has minimal relationships while hoping to land the man she really loves, and there’s fantastic first time sex (hampered only by the hero’s apparently large penis). Matt and Jake both came from nothing to amass great wealth, especially Jake, and Paige’s new business becomes fantastically successful – after a money-is-no-object boost from Jake.

With that out-of-the-way, there were enjoyable aspects. The tone is light, and every chapter starts with a witty epigram from one of the characters. The plot starts with a wonderful dark note – Paige is expecting a promotion, but she and her friends are fired – and the writing is sharp. Despite the job loss and struggles to find new work, there is never any serious threat of poverty, and never any doubt that the couple will get back together.  The tension, such as it is, consists of wondering when Paige and Jake will get back together, how, how steamy and frequent the sex scenes will be (steamy, but not excessively frequent) and what might cause the climactic hiccup in the relationship. It’s enough to keep the story moving along, and the starting a business subplot dovetails with the starting a relationship plot.

Paige does get rescued by Jake, in that he suggests the three women start their own business, and he helps get the business going, but she’s independent enough to do it, and skillful enough to succeed once the business gets customers. There’s character growth too, mostly on Jake’s part, and it integrates well with the plot.

In Morgan’s afterword, she acknowledges receiving a 75 published titles recognition from Harlequin, and thanks her readers. Perhaps it’s all the references to movies, made by the author and the characters, but this story would be great as a romantic comedy film. That I can imagine these characters and the plot events as a film is a tribute to Morgan’s great story telling skills. However, for me, this story was a little too rom-com.

#amwriting update 3

DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University (source)

As promised, another update on the progress of Romance 1. Almost 1/3 through the year, and I’m still doing my hour a week – sometimes late Sunday night, but it’s getting done. Earlier this week I passed 14,000 words, which is still not the 20,000 of an earlier version, but these are better words, if I do say so myself. The early chapters are underwritten, so on revision it will be longer.

I am sticking to my outline for the timeline and most events, but fixing secondary character and setting issues as required. For example, my hero is engaged (to the wrong woman), and I had him receiving demanding phone calls from her, as well as his demanding boss. This was getting redundant, and I was having problems justifying why he ends the engagement, and quits his job. The solution was to make his girlfriend and his boss the same character. That solved both the redundancy and the motivation problems.

For this week’s chapter, I had to decide if my heroine and hero go to bed. It didn’t make any difference to the heat level, as I was not planning to write a sex scene if they did. Whether or not they went to bed was important – the mechanics of what they did, if they did, were not. The choice was between some heavy kissing in the hall, and then they go into her room, or some heavy kissing in the hall, and then they go to their separate rooms. They went into her room.

The first consideration was whether or not going to bed together would be in character for them. For her, yes. In a minor act of rebellion against too many heroines, even in contemporary romances, that lead sheltered sex lives while their lovers have enjoyed many casual flings, my heroine has had her fair share of fun. For him, yes, primarily because it’s a chance to throw plot rocks at him. He’s engaged, and starting to think he’s made a mistake. He has, but after going to bed with her, he feels guilty, which is going to push him back to the wrong woman and make the Happy Ever After harder to resolve.

The second consideration was how going to bed together might affect the plot. The next morning, she finds out that he lied about who he was, what he was doing, and that he was engaged. It’s a major betrayal of trust, but it’s so much worse if they’ve just slept together. I couldn’t resist the temptation to heighten the betrayal.

By the way, if you are wondering why he’s in her house in the first place, his truck was destroyed when the road washed out (and trapped them together).  I may be having too much fun with this….nah. No such thing. Hopefully it will be fun read, too.

Lord of the Privateers

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Lord of the Privateers cover imageStephanie Laurens’ Lord of the Privateers is a 2016 Harlequin from their Mira Books imprint. Mira appears to be a premium line for established authors. Although the web address (www.mirabooks.com) redirects to Harlequin, the book does not mention that it is a Harlequin. This particular story is a historical romance, but I’ve got another Mira Books title in my to-be-read pile, and it appears to be a contemporary. Lord of the Privateers is the concluding volume of quartet of stories, which means the hero has three brothers, all recently engaged. It works well enough as a standalone story, though it may have greater appeal for readers who want to find out what happens next with the other couples.

As this is a recent publication, I’m going to say spoiler alert right here, for those who feel such warnings are required. Come back after you’ve read it, and let me know if you agree with my comments.

I’ll confess starting with a bad feeling about the story, since it begins with a 7 page character list, and 3 pages of maps. Laurens is certainly a skilled writer, as far as the mechanics of writing go, and the heroine is the strong and independent type I like to see, but the plot was too drawn out and did not work for me.

It’s a second chance romance, with the couple getting back together after eight years. They were hand-fasted and planning to marry, but he went away on a government mission for months longer than expected, was unable to contact her, and when he did finally return she refused to see him. So the separation was based on a simple misunderstanding. Okay, I’ll buy that.

Royd runs a merchant ship, and Isobel is the hands-on heir to a shipyard – and they’ve been business partners for the last eight years. Wait, what? They’ve been working together for the last eight years, and haven’t cleared up that misunderstanding?

Royd is asked to go on another government mission, to rescue people kidnapped to work in an African diamond mine, and Isobel wants to come as she has a relative among the missing. As their ship leaves, they discover a stowaway – Isobel’s eight year old son. Royd had no idea. Huh? She’d wanted and managed to keep that a secret from him,  despite working with him, and moving in the same social circles? Now you’re starting to bug me.

(I sometimes do editing work for stories. Here, I’d suggest eliminating the child, and shortening the time apart. That would be more believable, and allow for more suspense about whether or not the couple will get back together. With the child being eight, and introduced as a stowaway, I was certain he’d be in peril later in the story, but nothing of the sort ever happens. His main plot purpose seems to be more motivation to bring the couple together, which isn’t needed given the minimal obstacles.)

The couple talk things over, all is forgiven, and we get a couple of steamy, detailed, multi-page sex scenes. I suppose I can’t complain about great sex on the first meeting, since they’ve enjoyed each other’s company before, but I can complain about the revelation that she’s been celibate since they parted, while “he certainly hadn’t been.”

There’s still some uncertainty on both parts, especially hers, wondering if she can truly trust him. And by now the plot is moving along in a quest structure, as they are enroute to rescue the kidnapped mine workers. So I keep reading, expecting for that trust to be tested. Nope. Doesn’t happen. The rescue goes almost exactly as planned, they travel back to England without incident (except for more sex scenes), and then there’s a second quest plot, as they arrange to entrap the masterminds behind the mine kidnappers.

By now the story seems more boys adventure than romance (except for the sex scenes and a couple of mission planning scenes I dozed through). Adventure stories are fine – I like Clive Cussler in small doses – but the adventure here is not suspenseful or risky enough to carry the story, especially in the absence of romantic suspense.

Despite the title, there’s no privateering in the sense of boarding ships and waving swords about. The mine rescue sequence could be exciting, but for the most part lacks suspense, and it’s very late in the story when some weaponry and heroics turn up. When the story finally ends, 500+ pages later, I feel like I’ve made it to the end of a disappointing date.

Counterfeit Princess

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Raye Morgan’s Counterfeit Princess, from 2003, is a contemporary romance featuring royalty from a pair of small fictional European kingdoms. Based on my experiences with this sub-genre (The Prince She Never Forgot, Accidental Princess), I was expecting a fun story, and this one started that way.

Shannon is a Texas waitress, working to pay off her mother’s medical bills and her art history training, so she’s happy to pick up a part-time job impersonating foreign princess Iliana, cutting ribbons while the real Iliana is partying in Vegas. The job becomes more intense when Prince Marco arrives to meet his diplomatically selected new bride, and the propinquity effect kicks in when Shannon must take refuge in Marco’s hotel suite to avoid the press.

So far, so good. Exactly why Iliana is in demand in Texas, to the point that she must be impersonated, is perhaps a plot hole, but we’ll let that slide. One might also question why no one seems to have noticed a popular princess partying in Vegas. When it comes to British royalty, what happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas.

Shannon’s secret is revealed relatively early, and she becomes the woman Marco cannot fall in love with, because of his agreement to marry Iliana. However, there is very little suspense over the outcome, because Iliana has already been revealed as completely unsuitable. To complicate matters, Marco is a widow, with two children by his deeply missed late wife. This adds cute kids and pathos, and means Marco must not only choose the right woman, but get over his late wife. The real princess shows up, and if there isn’t already too much going on, we toss in the wise servant, the all-knowing aunt, and some hard-to-accept coincidences that leave Shannon finding out that she’s actually royalty, a member of the same family as the missing princess. Shannon, feeling as manipulated as the reader, takes off.

The last chapter has Shannon arriving in the kingdom of her former lover and his fiancé, to take a job in her field. At least, that’s what Shannon apparently thinks, though why anyone, including the reader, would believe this, is a mystery.

Lots of nice moments here, good romantic tension, and sensuality without sex, though  sometimes overwritten. When he kisses her, she thinks, among other things, “He tasted like thick buttery caramel. Well, not really, but the effect was the same.” This may have inspired the Fifty Shades of Grey line “His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel… or something.” However, after a strong start, there are too many coincidences and too much going on, and character growth is lost in the confusion.

Awful Eighties Book

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I’m not going to name this book or the author, because as much as I dislike the book, it’s thirty years old, so I don’t need to warn anyone away. Also, the author is a prolific writer, a best-seller in several genres, and this was from early in her career. I assume she was writing to meet the trends of the time.

I haven’t read many romances from the 1980s, but those I have read tend to feature realistic characters and situations, and, compared to 1970s stories, stronger women and less dominant men. There’s usually overt reference to condom use, and less emphasis on the heroine’s virginity. These are all things I like. I was hoping for another Lucky in Love, from the Temptation imprint. However, there were a lot of imprint categories in the 1980s, and obviously not all of them got the modernization memo.

Our couple have a well written meet, at a night class, with delicious erotic tension. We’re off to a good start. He offers her a ride home, there’s some mutual flirting, and he turns into a dominant obsessive jerk. She runs a home business, which he mocks, while he is fabulously wealthy from a job that doesn’t require any of his time. He insists that they will sleep together, regardless of what she wants. The first half of the book is her saying no, and him pushing, and this was not pleasant reading. He kidnaps and isolates her (barely justified by a suspense subplot), and eventually she gives in. Of course it’s the best sex either of them have ever had – or at least it is for him. Her virginity is implied (and there’s no mention of a condom or any birth control). After sex, he declares that she belongs to him. At the climax, he defends her from a weak subplot danger, then informs her that they are getting married, and warns her that he’ll be even more demanding. And we never do learn why either of them were in the night class.

There must have been a market for stories where pushy rich men mock and coerce younger women, and I suppose there still is, but it’s not something I enjoy. Usually the back cover blurb is enough to warn me away, but in this case it was misleading.

PS. Still on track for an hour a week working on my romance (featuring a strong woman, who is not a virgin, and a man who falls for her but doesn’t expect to own her). This month I’m also taking an online course, working on character growth, which is helping my understanding of the relationship between plot and character. We all know that every character has to want something, but why they want it is material for both the character and the plot.

Safekeeping

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Safekeeping CovelSafekeeping is a 1994 Harlequin by Peg Sutherland. It’s part of the Dangerous to Love series, a set of fifty books each set in a different American State. This is #46, Virginia. It’s also part of the Women Who Dare series, and it’s no longer in print or available electronically. Sutherland wrote for Harlequin in the 1980s and 1990s, under that name and others, and now writes creative non-fiction and poetry.

The meet is a little forced. Quinn, eight months pregnant, goes into the mountains with two under-privileged pre-teen girls, for an afternoon stroll in the woods. They get trapped by a snowstorm, and seek shelter in an isolated cabin. The cabin is home to Whitney, an ex-con, hiding from the police as well as toughs working for corrupt government officials.

Roughly the first half of the book is the couple and children trapped in the cabin. The confined space is a great setting for various tensions as everyone comes to terms with the arrangement, and the couple become attracted to each other. Then Whitney manages to get the children home, and starts investigating how he can resolve his predicament. Quinn, unable to walk thanks to a narratively convenient twisted ankle, remains at the cabin, and goes into labour early. Fortunately there are no complications, and Whitney is an experienced midwife, having helped his grandmother deliver babies in the same cabin. The action moves to town, more characters and settings come into play, and the second half, more thriller than romance, is faster paced.

At about 300 pages, this is longer than a typical Harlequin, and grittier than some of the romantic-suspense genre. Quinn had a rough childhood in Los Angeles, including losing a brother to gun violence, another to prison, and losing a baby from a teen pregnancy. Her big city background is offered as an explanation for venturing into the woods before a snowstorm. She moved to Virginia years ago for a better life, but just a few months ago the father of her baby, a policeman, was killed when he tried to stop an armed robbery. Whitney also had a rough childhood, which led to his involvement in an armed robbery where someone was killed. Prison brutality has left him with emotional scars. The hoods and government officials after him have killed one person already, and are prepared to kill more.

I love the characters. They’re realistic, wounded, and strong. Neither is in need of rescue, and they balance each other well. Quinn may not be woods smart, but she’s tough and street smart, and can take on the bad guys when necessary. Whitney is a quietly masculine hero, at home in the woods, good with children, home remedies, and computers. Sutherland contrasts his authentic masculinity with the false masculinity of street gang toughs and rich pretty boys. Quinn and Whitney both have public service office jobs, value education, and enjoy helping others.

The story-telling is rich, with flashbacks that deepen the character growth in the course of the story. The plot has a few contrivances, and the mid-novel tone shift is a little awkward, but overall this is a solid romance read that effectively balances sentimental and nostalgic moments with harsh modern realities.