Short books–novellas and category-length novels–are perfect for times like this, when I’m busy and burnt out and often don’t have the mental energy for more than a few pages at bedtime. So, short reflections on some of my short reading:
Short and . . . sweet?
Some of the romances I’ve read lately are of the kind often referred to as “sweet” romance: that is, they don’t have sex scenes. That includes The Right Kind of Girl, the Betty Neels book reviewed earlier; a second Neels, Cobweb Morning, that I’m currently in the middle of; and Norma Lee Clark’s Hester, a traditional Regency (I have Janet W to thank for all of these; her box of paperbacks has been keeping me in much-needed bathtub reading).
These three books made me think what an inadequate catch-all term “sweet” is. I wouldn’t describe their tone that way at all. It’s true that there’s something comforting about their familiar worlds and tropes. (Ros has a great post about the parallels between Neels’ world and the trad Regency one). But I find a lot of the emotions explored in Neels’ books quite dark: insecurity, loneliness, anger, resentment, despair. It’s not fair to judge on a book and a half, but I’m experiencing them as comforting because they’re cathartic, not because their picture of falling in love is a “sweet” one.
Neels’ Cobweb Morning has a rich Dutch doctor and a heroine who’s both pretty and a skilled nurse. I don’t know that I’m liking it more than The Right Kind of Girl, but I’m definitely finding fewer barriers to my enjoyment.
Clark’s Hester is a cheerier, less intense book, but its tone is more tart than sweet. Hester is an intelligent, competent heroine (she reads at least 10 years older than 19). She’s not sure at first whether she’s seriously interested in any of the three men courting her, and though she’s a bit discomfited by her uncertainty and by the first stirrings of romantic feeling (and sexual attraction), she’s confident all will be well. No rush to get married, she can go off and travel in Italy instead. I liked the beginning of this a lot–I really wasn’t sure at first who the hero was going to be, and the heroine was refreshingly independent without being foolishly opposed to falling in love. It quickly became more predictable, but Hester remained calm and competent, rescuing herself when the villain showed his true colors. A brisk, competent, not deeply emotional novel, rather like its heroine. Fun.
Short and . . . historical
Courtney Milan, The Governess Affair. Milan is really good at romance novellas. In fact, though I’ve bought several of her novels, I’ve only read the novellas (I will read those novels eventually. Also, I’m trying to do something about my book-buying habit). I liked a lot about this: the hero is a coal-miner’s son, former prizefighter, and somewhat shady man of business. Bring on more non-aristocratic characters! Whenever the hero and heroine were on page together, I was totally hooked. They start as opponents, and their gradual shift from maneuvering for position to falling for each other was captured in great dialogue and little details of action. These two smart, damaged people, striving for a chance at a good life, were well-matched.
There’s only one sex scene, which I appreciated. Too often, writers seem to feel they have to cram a lot of sex into a novella, and it crowds out the story (unless they’re really using sex to develop the characters’ emotional arcs, but many writers don’t do that effectively). This scene is brilliant: clever, touching, and definitely advancing the story. Also, hot.
My favorite line (the heroine’s): “I am done with things happening to me. From here on out, I am going to happen to things.” She’s earned that.
Another favorite: “There was an abyss of need inside him, but no woman was going to fill it.” Hot sex doesn’t solve their problems. Neither does falling in love. Love may inspire them to work out their problems so that they can manage to be together, but it isn’t a magic cure-all.
I did think The Governess Affair was a little too short, given the amount of baggage these two were carrying. Everything was wrapped up awfully quickly. I wanted to see more of these two, not an epilogue focused on the children who will grow up to be the heroes of the series this sets up.
Carla Kelly, Beau Crusoe
This is a weird one. In other Kelly books I’ve read, she doesn’t shy away from exploring the dark side of war. Here, the naval officer hero has survived a shipwreck and years alone on a desert island. That survival entailed some difficult moral choices in a lifeboat. For a long time, the reader isn’t sure quite how difficult, and neither is the hero, who can’t remember some key moments of his experience. He’s suffering from what we’d now term PTSD.
Like Milan’s book, Kelly’s features two people who, despite being wounded, act like intelligent adults rather than (as so often seems the case in romance) petulant children. They help each other as they fall in love, but they aren’t magically cured by it.
I particularly liked the way Kelly explored the hero’s moral choices and their consequences. What I didn’t like: Lady Audley, the raging nympho villainess. Yep, the woman who really likes sex is bad, and when rejected, turns nasty. Her frank desire for sex leads the hero to compare her, explicitly, to a piece of meat. I think he’s meant to be disdaining his own uncontrolled appetite there, but it spills over into a revulsion a a woman’s uncontrolled sexuality that I found quite off-putting. I often feel that Kelly’s sex scenes are colored by a certain discomfort (she’s discussed this discomfort and has moved to writing inspirational romance), but this went a lot further.
For a longer discussion of Beau Crusoe, check out Ruthie Knox’s post at Wonk-o-Mance.
Next up: contemporary and erotica.