#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.

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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.

 

Taylor’s Temptation

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cover image - Taylor's TemptationTaylor’s Temptation is a 2001 Silhouette Intimate Moments, by Suzanne Brockman – part of her Tall, Dark, and Dangerous series. I wanted to like the book, because I admire the author, but I was disappointed.

Bobby is a Navy SEAL. Recently wounded, he’s taking a short leave when his buddy Wes asks him to visit Colleen, Wes’s sister. Colleen lives in another city, and in about a week, she is traveling to the war-torn country of Tulgeria, on a relief mission to an orphanage. Wes wants Bobby to convince Colleen not to go. Bobby and Colleen have known each other for years, and have always been attracted to each other, but nothing has come of that.

So far, so good. Man in uniform stories sometimes work for me, and sometimes don’t, and Wes is a controlling and hypocritical jerk, since his career is dangerous missions, but it’s a solid friends become lovers plot, there’s a reason for them to be together, and there’s a deadline. Unfortunately, I kept tripping over reasons to dislike this story.

Spoilers ahead, for those who want to be warned of that.

Things get off to an awkward start with an action prologue that is actually a flashback, told by one minor character to other minor characters, but used to introduce Wes and Bobby. Early on there are some repetitive descriptions and back story that could have come later. Occasional swear words are omitted with varying degrees of awkwardness. But these are minor quibbles. The big problem is that the sole obstacle to the relationship is Bobby’s fear that Wes will not approve. Bobby has this silly male bros thing about not getting involved with your best friend’s sister. I’m just not convinced that’s a thing, especially after high school.

The relationship progresses, with various plot threads introduced and abandoned, and eventually there is immediately fantastic sex (sigh). That’s an annoyed sigh, immediately fantastic sex being one of my romance novel pet peeves. And there are more sex scenes than necessary, but perhaps that’s a requirement of the Intimate Moments line. Room mates appear and disappear as required by plot convenience.  When Wes learns of the relationship, there is a knock-down nose-breaking brawl, which involves the whole comitatus. Then, having settled their disagreement in a suitably macho fashion, they go back to being best buds and it’s fine that Bobby and Colleen are a couple. This is the first climax of the book, but it’s between Bobby and Wes. Arguably they have grown – Bobby defies Wes, and Wes accepts Bobby as Colleen’s lover – but I’m not that interested in their relationship.

What about that dangerous trip to Tulgeria? It’s the location of a second climax, but after all the buildup about the trip, I was hoping for more. I felt a great opportunity for rich character growth was ignored in favour of a quick and flashy cliche.

Despite all this, a few things in the book appealed. Colleen is largely presented as naive,  and the plot has her rescued a few times, but at other times she’s ambitious and capable.  She takes the lead in the relationship, and she is not talked out of her trip. There are multiple not quite subtle references to various types of diversity, and this is apparently consistent in Brockman’s writing – at least one of her books has a male couple, and the earnings of that book are donated to a foundation for marriage equality.

The plot references AIDs several times, and the fictional Tulgeria is a place of terrorism, poverty, and natural disasters.  This gritty reality makes the ‘don’t date my sister’ conflict seem more ridiculous by contrast, especially since the ‘loving a soldier is risky’ conflict is also mentioned. And a conversation about risks leads to the most impressive moment in the book.

Early in the story, Bobby learns that a woman who works at a community AIDS center has been attacked, and a day earlier he witnessed a man threatening Colleen at an AIDS fundraising car wash. He tells her she is in danger. She admits to being afraid, but points out that Bobby takes risks too. He says:

“I’m trained to do those things.”

“Yeah, well, I’m a woman,” she countered. “I’ve been trained, too. I’ve had more than ten years of experience dealing with everything from subtle, male innuendo to overt threats. By virtue of being female, I’m a little bit afraid every single time I walk down a city street – and I’m twice as afraid at night.”

He shook is his head. “There’s a big difference between that and a specific threat from a man like John Morrison.”

“Is there?” Colleen asked. “Is there really? Because I don’t see it that way. “

She goes on to describe receiving sexual threats from strangers on the street, though, as usual, the language is awkwardly censored. She continues:

“After someone,” she said more quietly now, “some stranger says something like that to you–and if you want a real dare, then I dare you to find a woman my age who has not had a similar experience–you get a little–just a little, nervous just going out of your apartment. And when you approach a man heading toward you on the sidewalk, you feel a little flicker of apprehension or maybe even fear. Is he going to say something rude? Is he going to take it a step further and follow you? Or is he just going to look at you and maybe whistle, and let you see from his eyes that he’s thinking about you in ways that you don’t want him to be thinking about you?

“And each time that happens, ” Colleen told him, “it’s no less specific–or potentially unreal– than John Morrison’s threats.”

I suspect the passage particularly resonates in the current environment of many powerful men being brought down by their history of harassment – and also reminds us that women have been speaking up about sexual harassment for a long time.  The passage is strong dose of reality, though it’s another example of why the ‘don’t date my sister’ obstacle seems too light for the story. Bobby admits being “that guy,” who whistles at women, but says he never thought something like that would frighten a woman. It’s not very heroic of him, and it could be a character growth moment, but the moment slips away with a change of subject. Colleen does not get much opportunity to demonstrate the strength she talks about. The Morrison threat subplot is resolved, but it’s Bobby that finds out why Morrison is a threat, and how to handle him, even though it’s something Colleen could have found out, and probably more easily than Bobby.

Still, on the strength of that one passage, I’m keen to try something else by Brockman. She’s a prolific writer, and although action heroes seems to be her main area, she’s written in other romance genres. She’s also an independent film maker.  The book was a disappointment, but it had hints that suggest I may enjoy some of her other work.

The Christmas Night Miracle

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Cover - the Christmas Night MiracleThe past month has been good for reading (and book shopping with Christmas money), but not so good for writing – reviews or anything else. But with the first weekend of the new year I am heading back to more regular routine. And yes, it may seem odd that I am publishing a review of a Christmas themed story after Christmas, but I find it odd how quickly we abandon all things Christmas by the evening of the 25th, as if we can’t wait to move on from what is supposed to a pleasant time.

The Christmas Night Miracle is a 2006 Harlequin from Carole Mortimer. It’s from the Harlequin Presents line, specifically a series called Marriage and Mistletoe. According to Harlequin, Presents is “alpha males, decadent glamour and jet-set lifestyles,” but it wasn’t that way in 2006 – at least, not in this story.

Meg is a single mother, travelling from London to the country, in a rented car, to visit her parents. Lost in snowstorm, she crashes into a cottage, occupied by American writer Jed.  This author wastes no time bringing her characters together. And while severe weather, especially snow, may seem a cliché way to bring and keep our couple together, it’s a meet cute that easily cuts across normal class and social boundaries, and reminds us of the natural world beyond our control, with a dash of reminder of mortality thrown in. That can get the blood going. Full disclosure – heavy rains plays a significant role in my draft titled “Romance One.”

Jed has written several best sellers, and his last brought fame, but now the pressure is on to produce another masterpiece, and he’s spent the last few months in a borrowed English cottage, fretting over writer’s block. Meg knows of him, but does not recognize him when they meet, in part because of the circumstances, and in part because he does not use his full name when he introduces himself. He’s avoiding publicity, and the last thing he needs is a young single mother and her three-year-old, stuck at his cottage for the night. He’s attracted to her, but dismisses that as a natural result of his forced social isolation. Then he hears Meg’s peculiar conversation with her mother.

The next day, roads are clear enough that Jed can drive Meg, in his luxury SUV, to the country estate home of her parents. He stays, partly due to worsening weather, partly to protect Meg from her cold and mysterious family, and partly due to the power of a few kisses. Throughout the day, Christmas Eve, his attraction to her grows, and his puzzlement over the family situation increases. That night, he’s inspired to outline his next novel, and Christmas day brings a series of revelations, and a proposal.

From meeting to proposal in just a few days is very quick, and yet it seems to work for this couple. Perhaps it helps that money is not something this couple has to think about. Though Meg does not live in luxury, she does not have money concerns either, and her family is wealthy. Jed is living a relatively quiet and simple (non-decadent) life, and he is not far from his farming family roots, but a couple of references to his “homes all over the world” remind us that he is wealthy (and is perhaps a nod to the jet-set lifestyles concept of the series). It also helps that he is a celebrity, as opposed to a stranger, and he sees her almost immediately in her childhood home and with her family, so there are some shortcuts to the ‘getting to know you’ phase. While they meet in unusual circumstances, both are mature and stable, and they have the ideal situation of not actually needing a partner, but recognizing that are better together. Multiple reminders of mortality also encourage moving quickly.

Then there are the many heartwarming elements. Winter stories naturally introduce cozy scenes of snowman building and hot chocolate around a fire, and even those of us who recall too many outings where we or the kids are quickly frozen, tired, and otherwise miserable are susceptible to these scenes of what is theoretically possible. On top of this we have multiple family reconciliations (theoretically possible), and some impressive displays of family support and selflessness (also theoretically possible).

So, strong characters, who are flawed and down to earth, thus likeable and sympathetic despite their wealth, and a fast paced narrative with sweet romantic tension, that hits a lot of heartwarming notes. There is a lot to like here. On reflection, it might have been nice to know more about the couple. For example, the story focuses on short-term issues, and I wouldn’t mind knowing more about our couple’s long-term goals. That could increase my confidence that this will be a lasting relationship. However, the  sub-plot mystery of how Meg became a single mother adequately distracts from weaknesses in the romance plot. And there’s no mistletoe kiss cliché, thank goodness.

 

 

 

Jessie’s Lawman

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Jessie's Lawman coverI dropped by my closest used bookstore to pick up some old Harlequins for bubble bath reads, and the 3 for $1 romance shelf, usually just outside the door, was missing. Inside, I found new staff, who were surprised at my request, but decided that explained why the old Harlequins, in boxes on the floor, were missing prices. The owner had died some months ago, and the family were still sorting things out at the business. My modest purchase did not impress them, especially since renovations to the building are forcing them to move soon, and inexpensive retail space is hard to find. Hopefully they won’t move too far.

One of the purchases was Jessie’s Lawman, in the Temptation line, from 1995, by Kristine Rolofson. Now that I’m writing this, I look her up, and her bio seems familiar. Yes, another of hers was a previous 3 for $1 purchase: Plain Jane’s Man.  According to my review, Plain Jane’s Man was comfortable, verging on dull. Jessie’s Lawman, written just a year later, is more engaging, with higher stakes and stronger, more sympathetic characters.

Jessie is a struggling song-writer, fleeing a broken relationship. Driving through Colorado, she picks up a teenage hitchhiker carrying a baby, but when they stop for a meal in a small town, the hitchhiker takes off, leaving Jessie with the baby. Unable to get any local help, Jessie heads for Denver with the baby, but gets caught in a snow storm, and stops at a small roadside diner with a few cabins. There she meets Sheriff Daniel, who lost his wife to cancer last year.

The snowstorm and the baby force them to spend the night together. They talk, she sings to the baby and Daniel, and one thing leads to another. Daniel is impressed by her singing talents, but suspicious of her story about the hitchhiker, and concerned about the baby. He’s observed that Jessie seems completely unprepared to look after a baby, without even a car seat (of course), and there are signs of abuse. In the morning, with the roads clear, he rushes her on her way, promising that the baby will be properly cared for.

Several years later, Jessie is a country music star, thanks to her break-through hit, a romantic ballad about a special night, called “Colorado Snow.” Taking a break from touring to write more songs, she returns to Colorado, planning to step out of the spotlight and look up Daniel.

Daniel kept his promise, and Anna was adopted by relatives of his, but another tragedy brought her back to him. When Jessie rolls into town, he remembers their passionate night together (and knows the song), but also suspects she is back to get her baby, now that she has her life together.

The set up is about a quarter of the book, but well paced with good romantic tension. Once Jessie is back in town, there is the pull of memories and shared experiences, but Daniel has to overcome his suspicions, and heal some wounds from the death of his wife. Both of them will have to make some career and lifestyle compromises to be together.

The plot and pacing keep things moving, interesting, and relatively realistic. Consistent with the Temptation line, sex is an integral but not excessive part of the story. The couple’s relationship requires sacrifices from both, and benefits both. Genre romance books rarely make good movies, but this one, with its rustic settings, storms, and music, is one I’d like to see as a film. It’s a happy balance of drama, passion, and sweetness, with a few dark and unsubtle reminders that life is short and sometimes you need to take chances.

Floating in Saltwater

Floating in Saltwater book coverFloating in Saltwater: A memoir – A Young Girl’s Search for Answers is not the catchiest title. It accurately describes the content of this book, though: long, leisurely, detailed, and intriguing. Over the course of many chapters, Barbara Carter details events of her life from ages five to thirteen.

Carter grows up on the south shore (the coast of Nova Scotia between Halifax and Yarmouth), in the 1960s, in a rural home that sees an assortment of adopted children and boarders, odd visitors and relatives (though most visitors and relatives are odd to a child), and a steady stream of strangers, particularly those renting a nearby home. She frequently battles with her mother, and has a remote father who is occasionally supportive. In some respects, this is a very ordinary childhood. I battled with my mother, while my father was distant but sometimes helpful, and the story is the same among my friends.  We are about the same age as the writer, and I suspect this book particularly appeals to those of us whose earliest memories are from the 1960s: The events are both familiar and strange, and one tends to start comparing. Yes, I remember the moon landing, shown on the little black and white TV; yes, I remember discovering dad’s dirty magazines; no, I was not bathed in the same water as all my siblings, nor was the water heated on a kitchen stove. A lengthy set of discussion points and questions at the end encourages this sort of self-exploration and comparison.

The subtitle notes this is a search for answers, and few are found. Carter relates her story with minimal adult reflection and insight on the events. This strengthens the immediacy and mystery of the action, but some of the chapters are frustratingly brief, and their events seem to slip by with no lasting consequence, leaving one wondering why they happened and why they are remembered. Fortunately there are enough ongoing issues to maintain interest, and the passage and repetition of years provides sufficient structure.

I understand that a memoir is a set of recollections, but, perhaps unfairly, I still expect it to read like a story, with characters, a plot, and a conclusion. Since our memories are stories we tell ourselves, that’s not a completely unreasonable expectation. Carter acknowledges that these are her own recollections, and that she has shaped them in the interests of storytelling, such as reducing the number of boarding children. So there are characters, a plot, and a conclusion of sorts, but it’s gentle and loose. At times I was reminded of Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, at times it seemed more poetry than prose, and at times I was left hanging and frustrated. That’s life, I suppose. I suspect Carter’s writing style may be influenced by her artistic work in other media, as discussed on her website. Some people seem to have a creative energy that expresses itself in many ways, while others, for better or worse, stick to a narrow field.

It took me a while to be drawn into the book, but I gradually found it more and more compelling. A second book continues the story, and while I’m keen to know what happens next, the blurb promises an exploration of “grief, anxiety, loss, and depression,” and the title is Balancing Act: Memoir of a Teenage Breakdown. I think I need a few Happy Ever After stories before I tackle that.

Dance Cards

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Image of dance card, By Ewing, Gladys (http://digital.lib.uh.edu/u?/p15195coll23,98) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

“Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.”

Regency Romances often refer to dance cards. Like most lists, a list of your dance partners for the evening is a great way to be organized. No one is overlooked or forgotten, no one gets more time than they should have, and there’s no risk of forgetting names. It’s also a record of the evening, and there are examples where the lady has made notes – such as “pipsqueak.” I’ve wondered if, years later, a lady might look back through her old cards, and savour, or shudder at, the memories of the men listed there. If I ever tackle a historical, I’ll want to use dance cards, but meanwhile I’ve tried to capture some of my thoughts about dance cards in a poem, published in this month’s Open Heart Forgery.

At the risk of offending poetry purists, I consider writing poetry great exercise for stretching one’s writing skills, and overcoming writer’s block. The shift of form is a change that’s as good as a rest, and you can complete a serviceable poem in a few days. When you are struggling to complete a novel, spending a few hours on something that you can finish boosts confidence.

Today is the first of November, and the beginning of NaNoWriMo. According to my profile there, I drafted Romance One five years ago. Since then, it’s been completely re-drafted – twice. It’s also been rejected by Harlequin, revised, and is currently getting its third re-draft. You can see why I might want some proof that I can actually finish something. The good news is that it is a better story than it was five years ago, and I have made progress on other writing projects too. It’s another, older, project, a cozy, also on its third rewrite, that is my priority for NaNoWriMo this year.

Fortunately, I enjoy the writing process. In the past five years I’ve finished and published enough short things here and there that I feel comfortable calling myself a writer. Still, I’d like to get a novel done – at least one, though I have several drafted. This year I made a New Year’s resolution to work one hour a week on Romance One, and I kept that resolution through August before some traveling knocked me off schedule. My latest effort to organize my life to include writing is a list. Everyday, I do something on my writing list (this blog post being one example).

Some people claim if you have to make an effort to include writing in your life, you are not sufficiently motivated. Hogwash. I have to make an effort to include grocery shopping in my life, including lists of what to purchase. There’s no lack of motivation to eat, write, or dance: lists help keep everything on track.