Patchwork Family in the Outback

Title: Patchwork Family in the Outback
Author: Soraya Lane
Harlequin Romance
Published: September 2013
Reasons I might actually remember this one: Teaching in a one-room school in the outback (and renting a home for $1 a week) just sounds gorgeous.
This is one of the many, many “set in Australia” romances novels I’ve been unable to resist picking up. I buy up Australian heroes the way some people buy cowboys. 
I don’t usually comment on covers, but this one has the worst case of “stick a rock on it and call it Australia” I’ve seen in a long while.
I am not a fan of plot moppets, AT ALL, but I liked these two in spite of their obligatory case of “instantly liking the heroine and in no way feeling threatened by her relationship with their father.” For children whose mother walked away, clinging hopefully to a new adult female presence is probably as likely as resenting her, and they were written in a non-cloying way, so it worked for me.
On the other hand there was an Aboriginal family that functioned more as a series of plot devices than as characters, and that annoyed me. The heroine thinks about going out to see them to offer to help educate their children; the hero takes the heroine along in a storm because the Aboriginal woman is in labour; but we don’t actually SEE the woman until the actual last page of the book. Her husband shows up for two entire pages in the middle, long enough to tell the hero and heroine that Sally’s had her baby and she doesn’t need any help. And, seriously, I know a category romance doesn’t have a lot of room for secondary character development, but I would have loved one or two tiny scenes with Sally — even just showing up for one sentence she manages to sound like she potentially has a sense of humour and a, you know, personality.
Active Ingredients:
Plot Moppets
Miscarriage(s) Backstory
Some of my Best Friends are Aboriginal
Bad/Shallow Woman Abandoned Hero (and their children, the plot moppets)
Lying Cheating ex-Husband Abandoned Heroine
Australian Weather: Floods

The Christmas Baby Surprise at Thanksgiving

Title: The Christmas Baby Surprise
Author: Shirley Jump
Harlequin Romance
Published: October 2013
Reasons I might actually remember this one: It’s been a couple of months, and what lingers are the cosy feeling of the run-down inn setting, and the Sisterhood of We All Have Rocks (the heroine’s backstory involves a set of childhood friends).
In spite of the title, Christmas does not actually happen in this book. The last chapter, in fact, takes place at Thanksgiving, and by then the hero and heroine are back together and he’s on board with the whole pregnancy thing, so I’m not sure who would have been left to be surprised by Christmas. Santa, maybe. “Ho, ho…wait, you’re PREGNANT?”
This is one of those cosy, “saving a business/hotel/renovating a house” Harlequins. (And yes: that’s a thing. I have at least three books on my shelves that fit that description.) It’s one of my favourite set-ups, for some reason. I automatically like any hero or heroine who sees the importance of restoring old buildings or saving small businesses. And there is something so (I know I keep using this word) COSY about it all.
I don’t usually have much sympathy with heroes who come over all panicky when the heroine gets pregnant, because honestly, if you’re old enough to wield the stick you should be aware that THAT CAN HAPPEN, and prepared to either stay chaste or deal with your responsibilities. But this guy had enough credible backstory that I bought his reaction, and didn’t dislike him at all for it.
Active Ingredients:
Childhood Friends
Death of a Friend Encourages Re-Evaluation
Married But Drifting Apart
He Doesn’t Want Children
Renovations Will Bring Us Together
Fond Memories of a House (in this case, an Inn)
Thanksgiving Dinner

Masochistic Wife, Husband of Slutshaming

A while back I read a Harlequin from 1978 called The Dark Side of Marriage. It was about a woman whose husband falsely believes she cheated on him, and how they’re forced into proximity, and realize they still love each other.

It was, and I cannot overstate this, a horrible horrible wrenching read. It was well-written, but that particular plotline–and the HEAPS of angry, abusive treatment the husband doled out–was incredibly difficult for me to get through.

Well. At the time I didn’t realize that this is an actual thing. I mean, that wasn’t a one-off, or a relic of the not-all-that-distant-past. “Husband thinks his wife cheated and is mean to her, then discovers he was wrong and grovels” is, like, a subgenre unto itself.

And I just finished another one. FROM 2008.

Title: Innocent Wife, Baby of Shame
Author: Melanie Milburne
Harlequin Presents
Published: April 2008
Reasons I might actually remember this one: Aside from the appalling lead man? Well. The writing was actually very good, with that zany soap-operish over-the-top feeling that I’ve grown to love in category romances.

There’s no good reason for me to waste time recapping the plot, is there? After that title you know everything you could possibly want to, except for the reason she’s innocent of adultery even though her husband found her naked in her best (male) friend’s bed and the friend told him they’d Totally Done It, Dude, I Rocked Her World. The reason is a spoiler so deliciously insane I laughed until I had stomach cramps, so I’m whiting it out; highlight to read if you don’t care about spoilers: the best friend is gay and knew his father wouldn’t fund his move to Canada/new furniture design business if he found out about the gayness and the pending gay marriage and gay gay gay gay, apparently gay men are compulsive liars who accidentally roofie you with pain medication, lie to your fiance because he hurt your feelings, lie to their fathers to get money, and then let the press slander your reputation for two months and your marriage fall apart without ever coming clean. WHO KNEW?
Yeah, so that happened. This all comes out at the very end, right after the obligatory almost-miscarriage that caused the hero to realize he wanted this baby after all, and oh yeah he was sorry for those things he said.

Which almost brings me to Those Things He Said, but first, a public service announcement: if you are pregnant, and having painful cramps in your lower belly, GO TO THE HOSPITAL.Don’t ignore the pain, lie to others that you feel fine, and then faint dead away in a sea of blood leaving the people around you to take you there, okay? JUST GO.

But the really, really memorable thing about this book–and the reason I almost couldn’t finish it, in spite of the good writing and entertaining over-the-topness–can best be summed up as a list.

To best appreciate the list, bear in mind that he thinks she slept with another man, once, on the night after they had a huge fight because she thought he’d been having an affair; the other woman had left messages to him on the phone, and photoshopped some evidence, in an effort to make it look like he’d been cheating. Got that? So he thinks she had one-time revenge/comfort sex, even though he knows she has no memory of the night in question because she passed out at said friend’s apartment before the “sex” (which, if it had happened, would have been rape, seeing as how she WASN’T CONSCIOUS). Since they separated he’s kept a mistress. Now he’s blackmailed his wife into pretending to have reconciled.

Those Things He Said (and Thought):

“Do I not have the right to hate you, Keira?” he asked. “You destroyed our marriage by sleeping with another man.” (p. 26)

“Where you opened your legs for him like the filthy little slut you are,” he ground out savagely…(p. 26)

His mouth tilted in a mocking smile. “You have already given me your consent,” he said. “We are still legally married, remember?” (p. 30)

“That should give you something to remember me by,”  he said in a flinty tone as he re-zipped his trousers. (p. 33)

“What is your preference these days?” he asked. “Right or left, or do you still lie right in the middle?” Sprawled like a whore, he added silently… (p. 45)

She had claimed to be a virgin when he’d first met her but now, with hindsight, he seriously doubted it. She had slept with him on that first night without hesitation. (p. 47)

He wasn’t handing over half his wealth to his sluttish ex-wife, who would no doubt share it with her lover. (p. 51) 

 “I would only have to roll you over and sink into you to prove how much of a wanton you really are.” (p. 53)

“But I am not going to do it,” Patrizio said, moving away from her. “I am not going to taint myself with soiled goods.” (p. 53)

“You led me to believe you were a virgin,” he said. “I realize now, of course, that it was all an act. You only told me that to reel me in to marry you.” (p. 76)

“You are a wanton witch,” he ground out. “You cannot live without a man in your bed. I see the hunger in your eyes. I saw it when you came to my office the other day. You are insatiable. One man was not enough for you. It is never going to be enough for you.”  (p. 77)

“You are nothing but a cheap little slut.  I will be glad when this farce is over….” (p. 83)

And so on and so forth. That’s less than half the book, but I feel nauseated all over again. The “hero” is a hateful, misogynistic arsehole, and in real life he’d be terrifying. In between saying all these things he is, of course, having sex with her, and repeatedly reminding her that in six weeks they can end the charade and he can go back to his mistress.

She cries, faints, and wakes up screaming from nightmares, and at those points he comforts her, calls her cara, and demands to know “what kind of man she thinks he is” when she flinches away from him. It’s sick. Maybe this is someone’s kink, but I felt like I was watching a documentary on spousal abuse.

I’m leaving out the abuse she takes from other quarters, most particularly her parents (who blame her entirely for the break up, apparently taking the tabloids’ word for it that she’s a harlot) but also nearly everyone else in the book: people at a party, a random cab driver, and her husband’s teenage nephew all call her or think of her as a slut. It could almost be read as a criticism of the way we treat women’s infidelity as compared to men’s, and at a couple of points the heroine thinks about that issue. But mostly she just feels guilty for something she doesn’t remember doing (and didn’t in fact do), cries and apologizes, secretly continues to be in love with her creepy ex, and gladly takes him back in the end.

Active Ingredients:
Bad/Shallow Woman Wants Hero
Desperately Poor Heroine
Horrible Parents Who Side with Hero
Plot Moppets (teenage variety)
Hounded/Lauded by the Press
Justice at Last
Kindly Servants
Threats of Marital Rape
Near Miscarriage Causes Hero to Realize he Loves Heroine/Wants a Baby
Hero Insults Heroine by Refusing to Believe she was Faithful
Improbable Happy Ending

Guardian to the Heiress

Title: Guardian to the Heiress
Author:  Margaret Way
Harlequin Romance
Published: March 2013
Reasons I might actually remember this one: It reminded me of sharing Harlequins with my grandmother, long long ago.

I have read so many romances lately. SO MANY. I am way, way behind on reviewing; I have a stack of about six set aside for when NaNoWriMo is finally over.
But I had to do this one now, while it’s fresh, because it brought back such strong romance-novel-nostalgia for me.

I started reading romances long before I was interested in romance. I can’t be alone in this, surely? Back when I first read them, the romance was hands-down the least interesting part. My grandmother used to save me any that had a heroine with a job I’d be interested (nurses, vet’s assistants, and stewardesses), any that had horses or dogs, and any that had an element of “mystery novel” blended among the boring romance stuff. To this day I vaguely remember one  featuring an orphaned kennelmaid, and I wish I could identify and buy it.

This one had no horses or dogs, but in a lot of ways it reminded me of reading romances back then. The plot is definitely the kind of thing my grandmother would have set aside for me, sort of a blend between a Cinderella romance and an Old Dark House mystery: the young heroine inherits a huge fortune, raising the envy of a whole host of insane, evil relatives, one of whom attempts to kill her. Luckily she has the hero, her beloved (now deceased) grandfather’s lawyer, to protect her.

Additionally, it has something of the flavour of those romances. Not in the rape-y sense (I know old school romances have a bad reputation on that front, and I’ve reviewed a few of those), but in having a slower, more leisurely pace (in spite of the abundance of crazy, competitive women and murder attempts).

It also gets hilariously didactic at times, and I SO REMEMBER ROMANCES BEING THAT WAY. Specifically, I remember being about ten and reading the parts about how to dress, or how to choose a job, or what entailed good manners/taste/art/whatever in complete seriousness, as though I was finding clues on how the adult world worked.

So I was strangely delighted when this book burst into Public Service Announcements about food:

“Super simple. You just have to make sure everything is fresh. My flatmates would live on takeaways if I weren’t there. Takeaways aren’t my scene.”

“Not when one can whip up a delicious meal in ten or fifteen minutes.” (p. 31)

Or the importance of wearing seatbelts:

The girls were very lucky they had done the right thing, strapping themselves in. He had known of horrific cases brought about by the non-use of seatbelts, defective airbags, or both. (p. 156)

In among the PSAs, the murderous crazies and the manipulative sort-of-girlfriend who still wants the hero,  there’s a wonderful Christmas in Australia bit, and the recovery of a traumatic memory in the attic (by which I mean not only that she’s in the attic when she remembers, but also that the thing she’s remembering also happened in the attic).

This probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but damn, I enjoyed reading it.

Active Ingredients:
Cuisine: Australian
Australian Christmas
Evil/Neglectful Family/Stepfamily
Film Genre: Old Dark House
PSA: make cheap, healthy meals at home!
PSA: always wear seat belt
Bad/Shallow Woman Wants Hero
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