A Decent Thriller: Two Days in Caracas

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Two Days in Caracas book coverI receive several author newsletters (and might start my own soon – stay tuned). These often contain promotions for free or inexpensive ebooks, and I might click the download or purchase button without reading much about the book. A few weeks or months later, I’ll be on the bus, or waiting at the doctor, and there’s an unread book on my phone. I don’t remember where it came from, but I start reading it. It might be a romance, or it might be something completely different.

Two Days in Caracas, by Luana Ehrlich (2015), is something completely different. It’s not a romance. It’s a thriller, and from Potter’s Word Publishing. According to their site, they publish”‘flinch-free’ fiction, which means you as a reader will never encounter profanity, erotica, or excessive violence while enjoying their books.” Many of their authors “write Christian fiction with a definite emphasis on the gospel message,” and Ehrlich is one of them.

I’ve read Christian romances under the Harlequin Inspired label (sometimes added to Suspense or Historical), and generally enjoy them. They are sweets, and the main characters might go to church or pray. I don’t, but then I’m also not a cowboy or a duke, and I don’t mind reading about them. The religious element is much stronger in Two Days in Caracas, and, as this is a thriller, romance is relegated to a minor subplot. The main character, Titus Ray, is a born again Christian, and his religion is a significant aspect of his life. That’s fine – for me, that’s a touch of the exotic – but he’s also a CIA anti-terrorism field agent, who seems to have no moral qualms about his job. He prays before interrogating a tied up suspect, not for guidance on whether or not he is doing the right thing, but for assistance with the interrogation.

Apart from the moral issues, that Titus can readily reconcile his work and his faith makes him a simpler character, and a less interesting one. (He does struggle with his faith, so there is internal conflict, but his struggle to be a better Christian does not include doubts about his work. In fact, he sees his work as an opportunity to spread the good word.) Action heroes are not generally known for their moral complexity, so it may be unfair of me to note that here, but the professed faith of the character raises the issue. The agent with a conscience can work well. One great example is Joe Haldeman’s All My Sins Remembered.

Two Days in Caracas is one of a series of novels featuring Titus Ray, and while this stands alone, there are continuing narrative arcs. The series has a catchy set of titles:

One Step Back, a novella, the prequel to One Night in Tehran
One Night in Tehran, Book I
Two Days in Caracas, Book II
Three Weeks in Washington, Book III
Four Months in Cuba, Book IV
Five Years in Yemen, Book V

In Two Days in Caracas, Titus is in South America, on the trail of a hired assassin who killed a fellow agent. Titus needs to find him, but also wants to learn who hired him, and why. The plot is handled well, though the ending is a little weak. Then again, I have the same complaint about the ending of The Day of Jackal.

Although a thriller, many sequences are padded with ‘police procedural’ details. Ehrlich knows, or seems to know, a lot about how the CIA operates, down to some very mundane and occasionally questionable details. The old airport car rental counter suitcase switch is used to swap identities when Titus returns to the United States, but in today’s vigilant and monitored airports, it’s hard to believe no one would notice. The snares of CIA bureaucracy, on the other hand, are entirely believable – I’ve worked in government offices.

I didn’t miss profanity or violence, but the romantic subplot suffers, like some sweets, from characters who seem to lack any interest in sex. There is one tiresome style note: too frequent foreshadowing. Many chapters end with something like “As it turned out, we never got the chance to try” or “Little did I know I would never see him again.” These are not necessary to build tension, as the plot incorporates various plans, goals, and deadlines.

Although there is flat characterization, padding, and excessive foreshadowing, as action thrillers go, this a fine if unusual read. It has the plot, action, and characters of a thriller, with the sex and violence of a cozy mystery. However, one aspect left me uneasy.

Ehrlich has chosen to use the names of real products and organizations in her story. For example, the hero drives a Land Rover, and another character drives a Buick Enclave. Characters have meals at IHoP and Chick-fil-A. And the good guys works for the CIA, while the bad guys work for Hezbollah. In any subject, using real products and organizations is artistically risky, as events can make your references outdated or embarrassing. A benefit is that this approach heightens reality, but when the subject is terrorism, I prefer some distance from reality. That’s my idea of flinch-free fiction.

Editing Needed: Stranded with the Suspect

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Stranded with the Suspect is a 2018 Harlequin Intrigue from Cindi Myers. Yes, I’m reviewing a book that is less than a year old. It happens sometimes, and since it is a current novel I’ll be more attentive to not revealing spoilers.

The title is misleading, since no one is stranded with a suspect. The back cover blurb also misleads. “They’re both undercover…and in way over their heads.” No, neither is undercover. Andi is on the run after escaping a cult of sorts, led by a charismatic and criminal man. Her self-appointed protector, a cop of some sort, never claims to be anything else. They do seem to be over their heads though. Perhaps it’s petty of me to point out title and blurb glitches, but unfortunately there are also errors in the text, and they distract from a decent plot.

Like many of the romantic suspense genre, a relationship grows between a woman in danger and the man protecting her. I’m sure someone’s written a story about a man in danger and the woman protecting him, but I have not read it yet. In this case, the woman is very wealthy, thanks to an inheritance, so at least she’s financially independent. The plot is complicated by the existence of two enemies, and the woman’s advanced pregnancy. A pregnancy is always a handy plot structuring device, and our couple are on the run, allowing for lots of action set pieces and close escapes as befits a suspense plot.

So far, so good, although it’s a series of poor choices that place our couple in increasingly perilous circumstances. There were moments where I wanted to shout “Don’t split up!” and “Turn back – don’t drive into the storm!” And then we get to the character details.

Andi is a poor little rich girl. She’s twenty-four, and remarkably naïve. She’s pregnant, but has no idea when the baby is due.  I had a lot of trouble accepting this. Yes, I know there are women who don’t even know they are pregnant, but Andi did not grow up in isolation or poverty. Given her circumstances, teenage rebellion would make sense, but she was with the cult for only about six months. Her life in her late teens and earlier twenties is a mystery. The issue of her uncertain due date is rendered moot early in the story, when a doctor examines her and claims the delivery could come any time in the next few weeks. No one pays attention to this news.

The baby was fathered by an an older married man who misled her, and who is now dead, in circumstances never fully revealed, but apparently unrelated to her present troubles.  As the story opens she’s still sympathetic to the leader of group she left.

Simon has been keeping an eye on Andi while he tracks the cult leader, and when she leaves the group, Simon realizes she is in danger. He considers Andi attractive, but dislikes her as a spoiled rich kid. Talking with her, he finds her vulnerable and lonely, and is disgusted that men like the cult leader and the father of her baby took advantage of her. He feels she is worthy of a husband who would treat her well. He also feels she will marry someone wealthy and sophisticated like herself, despite her own rejection of that lifestyle. My inner feminist wonders why he can only see her as partnered with a man.

He sees himself as a tough cop, a member of the working class, maintaining law and order, though there are suggestions that his background is also privileged. He’s proud of his work sending “widows and orphans back to uncertain futures and poverty because they had the bad luck to be born on the wrong side of the border.” Not much of a hero, especially to a woman who has apparently rejected wealth for a communal camp.

Both characters are wounded by their pasts, but they don’t seem to connect on that basis – at least not in the sense of healing from their wounds. Their relationship seems to come out of proximity and sharing some intense experiences. This brings people together, but a lasting relationship needs a deeper connection. It does not help that the relationship becomes sexual very quickly. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Andi has unresolved issues with her father. That was apparently the cause of the relationship that led to her pregnancy, and a factor in her relationship with the cult leader. Within a day or two of rejecting the cult leader she’s in bed with her latest rescuer and considering a life with him. Third time’s the charm?

Some errors in the text suggest the character backgrounds were not completely thought out. For example, early in the story, Simon notes that Andi’s father is dead. Later, Simon and Andi discuss visiting her father in prison. This is not a minor detail. Early in the story, Simon reflects on good people he knows, such as nuns who care for children in border town slums, and doctors who use their own money to help patients. Later, Simon thinks about his aunt, who runs a border town orphanage, and his uncle, a doctor who runs a clinic for the poor.

Then there’s this passage:

She turned her back to him and began to undress. He watched, mesmerized, as she stripped, revealing full, heavy breasts and the taut rounded mound of her abdomen. . . . She looked over her shoulder at him. “Well?”

I read this passage, and the surrounding text, several times, to make sure I had not missed reference to a mirror. I had not. I also considered that one might turn somewhat as undressing, but it’s clearly stated that she still has her back to him once undressed. Perhaps he just catches glimpses? That would be more erotic. But it seems to just be an error that should have been caught in editing.

The pacing is good, and there are a lot of good elements in this story, but it never quite comes together, thanks to unlikable and not fully developed characters. This is a well written story, but it could have benefited from another round of editing.

Romance One Excerpt: Does this opening make me look interesting?

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Yes? No? All comments appreciated – thanks!

“This is the most beautiful campground we have ever seen. It’s a lovely spot.” The young woman gave Marianna a hug, and stepped into her car, shepherded by her husband. He closed the passenger door, then turned to Marianna. “Fabulous spot for our honeymoon. We thank you.” He walked around to the driver’s side of the car, got in, started the engine, and drove up the hill to the gate. Marianna waved as they drove away.

She envied the young bride’s happiness, evident throughout their three night stay, but I love not being a passenger, and not having a man speak for me, she thought. The night they arrived, Marianna cooked a lobster dinner for them in her kitchen. They’d appreciated it, but then the groom told his wife she’d need to learn to cook lobster.

“I can show both you of,” Marianna had said.

“No, I stay out of the kitchen,” said the groom. “We’re kind of old-fashioned that way.” The bride just smiled. I give it three years, Marianna had said to herself. But she had to admit the couple seemed close. During their stay they had hiked together, gone swimming, and spent a couple of afternoons sitting on the beach, just reading.

Marianna watched until their car disappeared around the first curve of the mountain, into the bright red and yellow leaves. She thought she heard another car coming, and waited, but the sound faded. She had no reservations for today, and while a paying guest or two would be appreciated, she was hoping to spend the next few hours fixing the well pump. Two weeks ago she had replaced a defective main breaker that left half the sites without electricity, and now none of the sites had water.

“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” she said, as she started walking up the hill to the well shed. The shed was at the highest point on her land. Before going in, she turned to look down across the empty campground and out to the open ocean. After two years she still found the view breathtaking.

An Old-Fashioned Woman in an Old-Fashioned Plot: The Secret Life of Connor Monahan

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Book cover: Secret Life Of Connor Monahan The Secret Life of Connor Monahan is a 2001 Harlequin Desire by Elizabeth Bevarly.  It’s also available in an illustrated and presumably condensed version from Harlequin comics, something I have not seen before.Cover: THE SECRET LIFE OF CONNOR MONAHAN (Harlequin comics) Kindle Edition by Elizabeth Bevarly (Author), Kei Kusunoki The plot is a variation of 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.) In this case, the man, Connor, is an undercover police officer. He’s investigating a prostitution ring that appears to be running out of a restaurant, and he assumes the owner, Winona, is the madam, and a former prostitute. It doesn’t help his assumptions that the restaurant is decorated like a bordello, features phones on the tables to encourage communications between different tables, and that Winona’s fondness for the Victoria era includes elaborate and old-fashioned dress.

The phones on the table is an odd gimmick, more appropriate for a singles bar (circa 1990s) than a fancy restaurant, and not in keeping with Winona’s usual preference for genteel behaviour. The phones are one of several odd items that show up for narrative convenience, and require great suspension of disbelief. As the story opens, the local police force has been watching the restaurant for three weeks – a significant amount of resources to investigate possible prostitution. Mid-story, we learn that Conner has been watching the restaurant, and Winona’s apartment above, yet never noticed she had a small balcony off her bedroom. And late in the story a twin brother pops up, as part of a series of coincidences. This is also one of those stories where the couple are immediately attracted to each other, and of course the sex is amazing.

The coincidences and inconsistencies keep the story light, and remind the reader not to take any of it too seriously. Connor’s assumptions and Winona’s naivete lead to some amusing conversations. He soon learns the truth about her, and the romantic tension before and after his awareness is steamy, though relatively generic, and resolved well before the end of the story. That just leaves the question of whether or not there is a prostitution ring, and how Winona will react when she learns who Connor is. For these to be questions, Winona has to be both unaware of what is happening in her restaurant, and never ask Connor what he does for a living.

That she never asks him underscores how little she knows about him, which is not ideal for a long term relationship. When she does find out, the quick and easy resolution is disappointing. Am I cruel to point out that these characters did not suffer enough? Or just forgetting that the story has been light from the beginning? Is it petty of me to point out that Connor does not actually have secret life? Probably. The title may be misleading, but at least it’s neither generic nor too specific.

I always enjoy witty dialogue. Winona is relatively independent, older than Connor, not a virgin (barely), and somewhat feisty, and these are all points in the book’s favour. As long as you don’t take it too seriously – and that’s hard to do – this is a fine book to accompany a bubble bath.

We Should Have Talked About this Years Ago: The Sheriff’s Pregnant Wife

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Sherriff's Pregnant Wife coverI’ll admit being hard to please. Sometimes the titles are too vague, while other times they are too specific. The Sheriff’s Pregnant Wife sounds more like a working title than a release, but I must admit it’s a better working title than I use (Romance 1, Romance 2, etc.) This is a 2007 Harlequin from Patricia Thayer. A look at her books (40 in twenty years) shows a fondness for western themes and babies, and this one is part of a series of five books, all featuring single parents, usually with someone coming, or coming back, to Destiny, Colorado. (My inner cynic wonders if the town slogan is “There’s no escaping”?)

Paige and Reed were childhood sweethearts, and stayed close through high school. Then they broke up and went separate ways. They started lives,  careers, and relationships in different cities, but came back to their hometown. Reed had to care for his mother, and left the FBI after his partner and lover was killed. As the story opens, Paige, a lawyer working in the Denver DA’s office, is coming back to set up her own law office and have her baby, after her lover announces he is not actually divorced, and returning to his wife.

This is a second chance plot, enriched with a mystery concerning the long ago disappearance of Reed’s father, which made things harder in his already difficult childhood. There’s a hefty serving of family events and conversations, with siblings, parents, and weddings all going on. I grew up with few relatives nearby, and moved enough that the concept of a hometown and ancestral home means nothing to me, so it’s an odd and slightly exotic world.

The biggest problem I have with second chance plots is their tendency to have people, usually men, who have never gotten over someone. It’s romantic, I suppose, but also slightly creepy. All these years, and you never met someone else? Or if you did, it was meaningless. Granted, some lovers are not as special as others, but that brings me to a second common problem with these plots: The significance of other lovers is minimized. Reed misses his partner, but also downplays her, saying “we’ve all needed someone to be there. Sometimes it might not be the person we want it to be.” And Paige’s former lover is such scum we are left wondering why she ever connected with him in the first place. Former lovers, it seems, have plot functions (create a wound, get a character pregnant), but are rarely allowed any positive current role in a character’s life.

I always felt sorry for Rosaline:

FRIAR LAURENCE
Our Romeo hath not been in bed tonight.

ROMEO
That last is true; the sweeter rest was mine.

FRIAR LAURENCE
God pardon sin! wast thou with Rosaline?

ROMEO
With Rosaline, my ghostly father? no;
I have forgot that name, and that name’s woe.

Then again, considering how things turned out, she might have decided being dumped by Romeo was for the best. Contemporary romance novels have gotten away from virgins finding their husbands, but the way some second chance novels are written, it’s as if that’s still the ideal, and any interim relationships were a mistake. This novel is by no means the worst example of this.

This novel also perpetuates a pet peeve where children are involved – no child support, and no involvement of the biological father. Paige is hired to collect child support by one of her clients, so the issue is acknowledged, but Paige herself neither needs nor wants child support. Contemporary romances try to acknowledge modern families, where there may be children from different parents, but then don’t want to acknowledge the implications of that, which is families where children have different parents. All of this makes me want to write romances where former lovers are still friends, and children can have both a birth parent and a caring step-parent.

Okay, enough ranting.

The mystery subplot is well done, and well integrated into the romance plot. It increases the suspense, provides more reasons for our couple to be together, and the climax of that plot is also the all is lost moment of the romance plot. On the other hand, our couple might never have been apart for so long if they had talked a little more, a decade ago, or if Reed had read her letters instead of throwing them away. As a result, there’s not a lot of character growth, but it is suggested that both are more mature than they were in high school, and better prepared for a relationship than they were as teens.

Romantic tension is well maintained throughout, and the characters are ordinary people, both aspects I appreciate. The writing is good, though a couple of times there’s a static description of clothing when a known character appears, and I’m not sure, what, if anything, it is supposed to mean. “He was dressed in a pair of faded jeans and a burgundy polo shirt.” “The big man was dressed in a dark blue sport shirt and taupe colored trousers.” These sentences seem like character notes that made it into the final draft, and perhaps they stand out because most of the writing is smother.

In my ideal romances, the couple come together because they want to be together, not because they need to be together, and that’s the case here. Reed rescues Paige in a few minor incidents, such as a fall, but he’s not rescuing her from her pregnancy, and she helps him resolve the disappearance of his father. It’s also made clear that she rescued him when he was picked on as a child, so they come together more or less as equals. As second chance stories go, this is a pleasant read.

#amwriting update 4

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It’s been a while since I gave an update. Almost a year, actually. Time flies. I was working on my novel, working title Romance 1, even when I was not posting updates. I maintained an hour a week until August, when some travelling increased my reading, and decreased my writing. I never recovered the regular schedule, but still finished the draft in October. At 22,000 words, it’s too short for a novel, but long enough for an e-book, and the final version should be longer.

The story came together nicely, but there are some gaps. The couple are forced together for several days, and during that time the possibility of a long-term relationship appeals to both. The bulk of the story is this time and discovery. Then some misunderstandings suggest a long-term relationship is not possible. That’s the all is lost moment. A chapter follows, where the hero learns a few things. Months later, the couple meet again, and, both having thought about things, are prepared to try the long-term relationship. That’s the happy ending. But the ending came too long after the all is lost moment, and then seemed rushed. I put the novel aside, to take a break and focus on other projects.

In recent months I’ve been busy with my day job and my freelance editing work (and reading Christmas book purchases), and am now behind on all my writing projects. However, the last few weeks have been productive, and I’m getting back on track. Although Romance 1 is not my top priority, it’s never far from my mind. Occasionally I considered how to fix the end.

Yesterday afternoon, while walking home from some shopping, I realized what I need to do to fix the end: Write another chapter, after the hero’s growth. It can show where the couple are, halfway between their break up and getting back together.  Since they are not together,  and both think it will never happen, even after they have reconsidered the misunderstandings, this chapter will have the all is lost moment – and sow the seeds for their reconciliation. This should fix the pacing, make the ending less rushed, and will add a little length too.

I was not puzzling over the story when this came to me. It came to me while I was thinking about something else. There’s a lesson in here about not forcing things, and the joys of serendipity. This is the sort of happy accident that makes me think my time scribbling is not wasted. That may just be rationalization, but in fairness scribbling time does come after the day job and other adult type responsibilities are met.

I don’t have time to work on the story this week, but made a few notes on the draft. Now I need to clear another project so I can get back to polishing Romance 1. And maybe someday, when I’m not thinking about it, a better title will come to me.

Old Friends and Old Computers: Take Hold of Tomorrow

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Cover - Take Hold of TomorrowTake Hold of Tomorrow is one of those generic romance titles that tells you nothing about the book, and the cover does not give much away either. This is a 1984 Harlequin, which I approached with some caution, after a bad experience with another from the same year and line, Savage Pagan. Fortunately, this was a more pleasant read, though with some weirdness, both good and bad.

The author is Daphne Clair. Her full name is Daphne Clair de Jong, and she has published under Daphne Clair, Daphne de Jong, Laurey Bright, Clair Lorel, and Clarissa Garland. Clair is a prolific author, with more than 75 titles. She was a founder of the New Zealand branch of Feminists for Life, which began as an anti-abortion feminist group, but she left it as it drifted into social conservatism and became anti-feminist.

Stella Rawson runs her late husband’s computer company. Since he died two years ago, she’s proven herself a competent business leader, despite the sexism of the era, which is observed in the book, though not with the more critical perspective we have now. She was helped and defended by Owen, a senior employee who she considers a very good friend. One of her enemies in the company is Gavin, a salesperson she keeps on staff because he is good at his job, though terribly sexist. Presumably in the 1980s there was no need to sell computers to women.

Over the objections of some of her older, male, staff, she hires Russ as a Project Manager. Russ is good-looking, and at twenty-five, four years younger than her, but he’s ambitious, capable, and has experience with the farm management software her company is developing. Owen and Gavin both assume her interest is more than professional, and decide she is looking for a mate. Both move in.

Stella considers Owen a good friend, but has no interest in dating him. He chooses awful ties, and knots them badly. However, rather than let him know she is not interested, their relationship shifts from friendship to occasional awkward dates. Gavin tells her she needs a real man, and kisses her against her will, in her office. She doesn’t promptly fire him, and later jokes about the incident with her secretary. I wanted Stella to be stronger here, but women still endure awkward dates and tolerate unwanted kisses.

Russ may have been hired for his professional skills, but she is attracted to him, and he to her. An overnight trip to a potential client’s farm lets them spend a lot of time together, and Russ is soon forcing kisses on her too, but this time she sort of enjoys them. From here their relationship progresses through various stages of more and less intimacy, as Stella tries to decide whether dating Russ is a good or a bad idea, or whether it should be long-term or a fling. Meanwhile, Owen and Gavin both suggest Russ is just after her money, which raises more doubts in Stella’s mind, although she is aware they are jealous. Russ’s youth is another source of doubt, but it’s only four years, and, particularly after Puppy Love, seems inconsequential.

For all its observed and sometimes tolerated sexism, the story does a good job of capturing the shifting nature and complexities of developing intimate relationships, especially when there are complications such as former relationships and working together. The story also raises the possibility that men and women can be close friends. The last scene with Owen is not a goodbye, but an acknowledgement of the powerful feelings that can exist between friends, even if it is awkward at times.

One of the obstacles to the relationship, and a source of sexual tension, is Russ’s apparent lack of interest in “going all the way.” The eventual explanation is that he is a virgin, and saving himself for marriage. Although that sounds charmingly old-fashioned, in the 1980s I knew a couple of men in their twenties who were proud of their virginity, so it’s a realistic character trait. It’s also delightful to have a hero who does not have a long string of lovers before deciding to settle down. Even better, one of Stella and Russ’s earlier make out sessions is disrupted by his, um, over-enthusiastic response. Though not exactly the clumsy bed scene I keep hoping to see (and plan to write), it’s a refreshing change from the hero being a fantastic lover.

Romances tend to age well – love never changes – but this one is dated by the references to computers. The writer has added various details on what computers do, and how they work, circa mid-1980s, which at the time might have been fascinating material. There’s even reference to the future, where hooking your computer up to other computers might allow buying and selling farm animals online.  Now, of course, the information about computers is filler, though it’s amusing to read, at least for old folks like myself, who remember life before PCs. Maybe that’s what the title refers to – the coming of computers?

As 1980s Harlequins go, a good read. It addresses sexism, with a surprising amount of role-reversal. Maybe that’s what the title refers to? I suspect the mix of sexist elements and criticism of sexism is the author attempting to be progressive within the expectations of the genre at the time. The plot simmers with common challenges of dating, and other ordinary events. The ending satisfactorily resolves the questions of the woman’s career post-marriage, and the challenges of workplace romance. Though not always a strong character, by modern terms, Stella demonstrates that a woman can have it all, on her terms. Some would say that’s just as fantastical as the happy romantic endings, but I say books show us what is possible, and what we can strive for.

Puppy Love

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Puppy Love coverWhen I was younger, I occasionally looked at friends’ comic books, but the stories were hard to follow. They were all serials, so they continued from something I hadn’t read, carried on in something not yet in the friend’s collection, and frequently referred to other stories (*See Muscleman vs Waterman #235 to understand this remark). Puppy Love, by Ginger Chambers, reminded me of those frustrating reading experiences, but otherwise it’s a charming sweet romance.

Puppy Love was published in 1996. It’s part of a monthly series of 12 books, by different authors, called Hometown Reunion. The stories all apparently include someone moving back to Tyler, Wisconsin, “America’s favourite hometown,” according to Harlequin.  Tyler was also the setting for the series Welcome to Tyler in 1992 and Return to Tyler in 2000. Integrating this story into the series means there are many references to other couples and potential couples, and there’s a subplot that is awkwardly woven into the main plot and does not come to anything. The book suffers from a crowded cover, since in addition to the title, author, and series, there’s the name of a veterinary clinic, which I assume is significant to people who know the series.

The romance plot is friends become lovers, with the twist that Gracie is almost forty, while Roger is twenty-eight, and has not seen her since he had a crush on her – when he was fourteen, fourteen years ago. He’s returned to Tyler and taken over a veterinary practice, and meets Grace, a former dog breeder, at a dog show. See, the title has a double meaning – Roger’s young, and there are literal puppies…

Gracie is wounded by a relationship that ended badly. Her long-term boyfriend, not from Tyler, dumped her, in a humiliating fashion, for a much younger woman. After a couple of rough years she is settling into a comfortable life alone. She’s not keen to get involved with anyone, and finds it hard to believe Roger is seriously interested in her. Given how quickly Roger decides the object of his teenage crush is the only woman for him, I can appreciate her doubts. She’s also aware of how people might talk, if she takes up with a younger man after being dumped for a younger woman.

She had no knowledge of his crush, but since Tyler is a small town, she knows his family, so he’s not a complete stranger.  As romance novels go, theirs is a relatively normal relationship. There are a few coincidental meetings, but they also go out for dinner dates that end with goodnight kisses on the porch (it may be old-fashioned, but it also maintains romantic and sexual tension). And people do talk, though always approvingly. The story is a little thin, bulked up by conversations and events with and about other characters who I suspect are featured in other stories of the series. There’s also what I assume is the series arc suspense subplot, which adds some dramatic filler.

It’s a light and quick read, with the relatively ordinary characters I prefer, a good mix of realism and fantasy, and some novelty in the age difference of the characters. Chambers is on my list of authors to read again. And if you love comic book serials, you might enjoy the entire collection of Tyler books.

Savage Pagan

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Cover - Savage PaganWhat was I expecting from a 1984 Harlequin called Savage Pagan? With a blurb about a woman marrying a wealthy businessman to save the family business? Not this horror.

Yes, it’s older, so one might expect some dated attitudes, and, I must admit, a few other books from that era have been awful. Melting Fire, for one, though that was 1979. And Surrender to Desire, from 1985, which I could not finish. Still, this set a new low.

Lisa is happy young woman, with a sports car, an apartment, a casual boyfriend, and a very successful modelling career. But her brother, married with two children, reveals that the family business is about to go under, unless he sells it – and Rick, the buyer, wants marriage to Lisa to be part of the deal.

The setup is okay. I’ve read and enjoyed similar setups in historicals, and it can work in contemporaries too. I’d expect Lisa to be shocked, reluctant, even repulsed. But then Rick would turn out to be interesting, or somehow heroic, and woo her to overcome her objections. He’d have at least one sympathetic flaw. Comedy or exaggeration would be used to keep things light and gently remind the reader that this is fantasy.

Lisa responded exactly as I expected. The idea that she needs to marry a stranger is repulsive, but if she doesn’t, her little nieces are out on the street. (And it would be her brother’s fault, not hers, but family, right? Maybe it’s a good thing I don’t have any nieces or nephews.) So far, so good. And Rick?

He’s good-looking, he’s wealthy, and he’s utterly obnoxious. He’s made a deal, he expects delivery, and he wants an obedient wife. The marriage ceremony is quick, efficient, and meaningless. The sex is brutal (literally – she’s bruised), but Lisa enjoys it despite everything (and I don’t like first time wonderful at the best of times).

Rick tells Lisa’s photographer she is no longer working.  He also ends her relationship with the boyfriend, and is jealous when Lisa and her ex meet by chance and are having a pleasant chat. He makes it clear that he is the boss, and she will follow his orders, even down to her sleeping position (never with her back to him), at one point spanking her for being difficult.  Eventually Stockholm syndrome sets in, and in the last few pages he confesses his love for her. Sort of. He’s had a lot of women, but she seemed to be good wife material, and “in my arms you became a warm and infinitely passionate woman.” This offensive comment is apparently him being kind and loving.

My strong dislike of the story, and reading it quickly to get it over with, makes it hard for me to say if it was well written or not, but one thing stands out: We never get Rick’s point of view. That could have saved the story – his perspective could have made him a more sympathetic character, and perhaps changed the tone of the book.

I did not like this story, and I don’t think I would have liked it when it came out. A few years before this was published, I was writing letters to the school paper complaining about the objectification and stereotyping of female students and graduates. However, I understand that some people like it, or at least must have liked it at the time. I’m conscious of dictating appropriate pleasures – it’s certainly not my place to say that no woman should enjoy a story of a forced and unpleasant marriage. My feminism includes the notion that women should be able to enjoy whatever they want, without someone dictating that good women like this and do not like that. Still – what’s to like?

One reason I kept reading it was to try and find the appeal in it – is it the fantasy of someone else making all your life decisions for you? Freedom from money worries? But Lisa was doing fine, and the wealth, though present, is background. She doesn’t respond to it. Sexual submission? I suppose that’s there, but it’s surrounded by so much unpleasantness, and it’s not over-the-top enough that I’m comfortable seeing it as fantasy. Is there the chance to identify with the powerful male? Without ever getting his point of view, that’s not easy.

A couple of people on goodreads and Amazon liked it, but acknowledge it is not for everyone. There is praise for the emotion and passion. I suppose anger and hurt are emotions, and they are intense at times. Maybe it’s just me. I don’t like Taming of the Shrew (or Kiss Me Kate) either (though the former has some good wordplay and the latter has some good songs). I suppose that somewhere out there, thirty years ago at least, there were readers who enjoyed this, for some reason. Good for them. It’s not for me, and I’m going to start being more careful when selecting my 50 cent bathtub reads.

The Bounty Hunter

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Bounty Hunter - Thompson - CoverThe Bounty Hunter, by Vicki Lewis Thomson, is a 1994 Harlequin Temptation. No link, as it seems to be out of print, not available as an eBook, and not widely available used. This is a more-or-less country and western romance – the heroine lives in a rural trailer (she bought, on land she owns), keeps a couple of horses and rides them for fun, and runs a hair salon which is part of a large country and western bar/dance hall/mini-mall. I guess places like this exist, or at least existed. A little research tells me the club model could be Gilley’s, featured in the film Urban Cowboy. I missed the whole Urban Cowboy thing, including the movie, but since this novel is from a decade later, presumably there was a second wave.

A brief biography notes that the author and her husband “recently joined the line dance craze,” and that she listened to country music to help set the writing mood. That, and a few elements of the story, suggest this is an earlier work, but she was getting writing awards in the 1980s. A quick view of her site shows her interest in country and western, at least for romance, was not a passing fad, although I’m intrigued by the Nerds, and Nerds and Geeks series.

I say more-or-less country, as the plot leans to the action genre rather than country and western. Dallas (how’s that for a country name?) led a jury that acquitted Neal of rape. He’s sleazy as all get out, and she’s not interested when he wants to express his appreciation for her careful consideration of the evidence. Then Gabe shows up, seeking justice on behalf of his sister, Neal’s victim. Gabe suspects Dallas is a friend of Neal’s, and when he learns that is not the case, he believes she might be in danger.

The setup is good, though there is never any doubt about Neal’s guilt or intentions. Gabe and Dallas start as enemies, become friends, and things go from there. I like the working class characters, and Thompson does a great job of evoking the country and western nightlife scene. Dallas is ambitious, hard working, smart, and her goals in life are wonderfully described by her plans to carefully breed her dog.

Unfortunately, the characters hopped into bed a little too quickly, squandering some great opportunities for romantic tension, and the remaining tension (is this a short affair or a long term thing?) is diluted by the growing importance of the suspense plot. On the other hand, that plot works well to keep reader interest and show the couple working together. The resolution of the relationship question comes quickly – so quickly that I checked to see if some pages were missing before the last chapter. The quick resolution made the character growth almost an afterthought, but at least there was some.

Overall, this is well constructed, with a good amount of realism, a strong female lead, and some narrative tricks I might try and use. I might have liked it more if Dallas was even stronger, and was not set up for multiple rescues, but a couple of lines in the epilogue gave me confidence that this couple found a solid happy ending.