The Problem with Harlequin titles.

I get that current Harlequin titles are designed to shove in certain keywords to raise sales. I do. But aside from sounding same-y and somewhat silly, the real problem is that it makes it nearly impossible to remember which title went with what story.
Which, I know: Harlequin’s business model has historically been built around BIG SALES NOW and then the books disappear from the shelves and are replaced by the next crop. You aren’t SUPPOSED to remember the titles and go looking for old ones you remember fondly. But…now that you can backorder them for months from Amazon or the Book Depository, or download out-of-date ones onto kindle, wouldn’t it make more sense to make the titles a little more memorable?

All of which is a long lead-in to my point: I loved A Not-So-Innocent Seduction, but boy, I do not love that title. If I’m not actually looking at the cover I cannot even remember what it is called, and I finished it five minutes ago. Christ.

Author: Janice Maynard
 Harlequin Desire
Published: April 2014

Reasons I Might Actually Remember This One: The heroine was a secretly-rich flower child who travels around in a vintage volkswagon van named Bessie, and the hero was a boringly responsible hotel owner-manager who was kind of a jerk but in an understandable (because of his past) way. HOW COULD I NOT REMEMBER THIS ONE? Although I may have to make up a private nickname for it.

a not-so-innocent seductionSo the hero is uptight and reliable, having once fallen in love (back when he was sixteen) with a woman who turned out to be 1) sleeping with his father and 2) a gold-digger. His father went looking for the family’s old silver mine and disappeared, and has since been declared dead. Liam, as the eldest child, was left to help his mother run the family’s very exclusive hotel. There are a bunch of grown-up siblings (seven in total, I think) but they’ve all moved on and had, you know, lives. Liam’s 36 and in kind of a holding pattern.
So obviously he needs someone like Zoe, who enters the scene in a flower-painted vintage volkswagon van which promptly breaks down, stranding her in Silver Glen. She has a limitless platinum credit card, which she uses to check into Liam’s hotel for a six week stay. She tells herself that since she’s recently been sick she needs to recuperate, but throughout the book it becomes increasingly clear that she’s reached the point where she needs to break out of her restless wandering and move on to the next stage of her life.
So both of them bump up against each other abrasively, pointing out things they’re ready to see but not eager to be presented with, and it makes for some realistic fights. Not just arguments for the sake of making the heroine seem feisty, but real confrontations about the things that are so obvious from outside, but which they’ve been unable or unwilling to verbalize for themselves. IT WAS AWESOME.
Also, they have romance-novel sex. I don’t mean that in the obvious “since they are in a romance novel” way: I mean he pretends to be a viking marauder and she pretends to be his helpless captive. No, really.
“You are determined that I will obey you, so you stretch out on your back and force me to service you.” (p. 96)

That goes on for several pages, and I love it, because it reads exactly as though Zoe has read way too many bodice-rippers. They do it again near the end of the novel, too. It’s hilarious both times.

But  aside from the hot sex, they keep clashing because she has secrets and he has…a stick up his arse.

He’s immediately suspicious when she checks in, because she doesn’t look like the platinum-visa type, what with her flowing hippie-ish skirts and battered VW van and guitar and all that. See what I mean about him being kind of a jerk? Liam apparently has never seen a conclusion he wouldn’t leap to. It’s understandable that he’d be suspicious of people keeping secrets, what with his father’s affair and all, so I don’t actually hate him. But seriously, people get to keep secrets.
He’s also snide about her rootless, mobile lifestyle in a way that would have made me leave…and, to her credit, Zoe doesn’t put up with it either. She’s been avoiding her abusive, controlling father, which she’s able to do since her grandmother left her millions of dollars. But Liam manages to sound as if he’s siding with her father when he criticizes her lifestyle, and because there are wads of cash concealed in her van he ALSO believes she’s stolen money from her father. Which is lousy of him, but to be fair, most people lining their vehicles with cash aren’t going to turn out to be secret millionaires, you know?

“Wait,” Liam said, lurching to his feet and grabbing her by the shoulders. “I told you I love you. Doesn’t that warrant a response of some sort?”

She smiled at him politely, as she would a stranger. “Of course, it does….Go to hell, Liam.” (p. 175)

Her father shows up and she confronts him, and she can finally see that he really can’t control her anymore, and the threats (to have her arrested, to keep her away from her mother) are just the blusterings of a bully. She leaves Liam behind (since he basically just called her a thief) and returns home, able to visit her mother now that her father’s been defanged.

And then Liam shows up in her repaired van and grovels, and they ride off for an extended road trip, because he’s finally realized he can take time off without the world collapsing. Yay!

Active Ingredients:
Vintage Volkswagon Van (Bessie)
Guitar-Playing Flower Child
Limitless Platinum Credit Card
Lavish Hotel Setting
Responsible Head of his Family/Business Empire
Opposites Attract
The Odd Couple
Romance Novel Sex (Viking Variety)
Controlling Bastard Businessman (the heroine’s father)
Huge Oirish Family (the hero’s siblings and mother)
Secretly Wealthy Heroine

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My “Keeper Shelf” Overfloweth

Back when I was first reading romance novels, my best friend and I had the simplest sorting system ever. Romances were either “keepers,” which we knew we wanted to hold onto and probably reread, or they weren’t. Books that weren’t keepers got handed on to other people or dumped on the library or sold at garage sales; there was no used bookstore in our town at that time.

Of course, back then our purchasing habits were pretty simple too: we bought ALL THE THINGS, by which I mean all the categories we could find and afford each month plus whatever shiny foil-stamped horse-and-castle single titles we could scope out at the drugstore.

Now I’m a real live grown-up, and my buying habits have gotten complex and weird. I buy things I want to read because they sound good, because they sound bad, because the cover is hilariously awful, because I’ve always heard of this author/title and I was on eBay or Abebooks and there it was….

Image
A random sample grabbed from the “to-read” pile and spread out on my kids’ wooden table.

The problem is I have gotten way less ruthless about my “keeper” shelf than twelve-year-old me. I am drowning in paperbacks, here. I hate getting rid of vintage ones because I always worry I won’t be able to find them again. But also, I tend to collect categories of category (so right now I have ALL THE SHEIKS for some reason). Also, single-title covers are gorgeous, which makes me hold onto them even when I know I’m never going to reread them.

A major purge is in order, I think. I just haven’t made up my mind where to start.

 

A Harlequin Desire with a Harlequin Presents title!

Author: Merline Lovelace
 Harlequin Desire
Published: December 2013 

Reasons I Might Actually Remember This One: This is the first book I’ve ever read by Merline Lovelace, and I got completely distracted by her short biography. Very cool. But more to the point: this novel features a duchess’ socialite-ish granddaughter and a Kennedy-dynasty-esque power-political-type diplomat. The atmosphere was almost more riveting than the romance.

 diplomat's pregnant bride

Actually I haven’t read a Harlequin Desire in ages, so maybe this is the norm for their titles now. I suspect I bought this one by accident, when I was online-shopping for a stack of Harlequin Presents. But I’m glad I did; I enjoyed it.

So. The heroine was raised in genteel poverty by her exiled-duchess grandmother, who gave her (and her sister) an education befitting two members of the aristocracy of a now-defunct (imaginary) country. She had to sell her jewels to do this, and she reminded me of Anastasia for some reason.

The heroine, Gina (Eugenia), has never held a job for any length of time and has (we’re told kind of vaguely) flitted from man to man and career-idea to career-idea.

But now she’s PREGNANT, and motivated to make a living and become a responsible adult. Part of me wants to dismiss this as an idea straight out of Romancelandia, but honestly, pregnancy is a strangely sobering and motivating experience.

Speaking of which, early pregnancy is excellently drawn in this book. The heroine doesn’t vomit within minutes of conception, and doesn’t swoon away gracefully: she experiences an increase in appetite, needs to nap and go to bed early sometimes, is turned on easily and often, and wakes up desperate to pee. Which, yes: all of that.

The hero, meanwhile, is a career diplomat with a someday-maybe eventual shot at the presidency, and has a beloved dead wife. So the heroine sensibly doubts he really loves her, and is uninterested in marrying him just for the baby’s sake (and even LESS interested in marrying him for the sake of preserving his image for political purposes–which, to be fair, isn’t on his mind either, but it IS on his father’s agenda).

Because of the hero’s job there’s more talk of national security than I’m used to in a romance, and also more kidnapping (of the hero, not the heroine). I enjoyed it immensely. I don’t know if this is a feature of HDesires as opposed to HPresents, or its just a strength of this particular author, but there was none of the hand-waving “oh he’s a billionaire in…business” I’ve seen a lot of lately, and both the hero and heroine actually GO TO WORK, instead of being assigned exciting job titles that we never see them living up to.

There are also suspicious foreign cousins from the now-defunct mother country, one of whom is male, gorgeous, and points out within moments of meeting the heroine that they’re distant-enough cousins to legally marry. I kind of adored him.

Active Ingredients:
Dead Wife, Idealized Variety
Socialite Heroine
Imaginary Country
Elderly Duchess (heroine’s grandmother)
Selling the Family Jewels (Genteel Poverty)
Unplanned Pregnancy
Kennedy-esque Dynasty
Sequel-Ready Siblings (in this case the heroine is one of the SRS, since her sister’s romance happened in a previous book, but there are also two Exotic Foreign Cousins whom I suspect will get their own books, if they haven’t already)

I’d have thought it lied fairly often, actually.

Author: Sara Craven
 Harlequin Presents
Published: January 2014  

Reasons I Might Actually Remember This One: I knew I was going to love this from the first line: “Octavia Denison fed the last newsletter through the final letter box in the row of cottages and, with a sigh of relief, remounted her bicycle and began the long hot ride back to the Vicarage.” This book is so retro I feel like I’ve been time-travelling, and I loved every perfect minute of it.

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I don’t think I can adequately convey the tone of this book; it really needs to be read and savoured. But I’ll try. Tavi, the heroine, is not only a vicar’s daughter but is the kind of vicar’s daughter who cooks (plain, delicious-sounding home-y meals) and does village errands. Also she works for a pittance for the most awful woman I’ve encountered in fiction in a long time, a kind of mean-spirited shrew who runs a private school.
And. AND. Tavi is secretly dating this woman’s son, and initially I thought it was a secret because he was a spineless weasel and was hiding her from his mother. But it’s so much more awful than that: he’s banging the former rich girl of their village, who has spent the previous eighteen months married to someone else, and is hoping to divorce profitably, so she’s instructed Patrick the Cad to pretend to date Tavi. 
So into this heartrending situation is plunged a former Rock God. Jago falls in love with Tavi at first sight and spends the whole book courting her, which she’s too proud/dense to notice. She’s got that peculiar kind of stiff-necked pride that causes her to undervalue herself and suspect people of feeling sorry for her, and I remember being precisely this sort of ass myself when I was a teenager. But she also suffers a bit from that romance-novel-heroine disorder that makes her put up with way too much crap from the wrong people (her boss, her supposed boyfriend) while bristling and snapping at the hero (who never once treats her badly). So aside from sympathizing with her, I also wanted to beat her over the head with something. 
Still. She’s just pitiable enough that it’s hard to hate her (too much like kicking a puppy), and the hero is wonderful; so is the vicar, and the hero’s mysterious “Barbie” (not all that mysterious, I worked it out AGES before the heroine did and I suspect I was meant to).
Active Ingredients:
My Other Boyfriend is a Cad
My Boss is his Bitch of a Mother
Rock Star Invades Village
The Vicar’s Virgin Daughter
Horrendous Rich Girl
Ghastly Divorce Complete with Photos
Village Church Needs Repairs

review: Every Road to You

Author: Phyllis Bourne
 Harlequin Kimani
Published: February 2014  

Reasons I Might Actually Remember This One: In spite of the set-up in which the hero blackmails the heroine into accompanying him on a road trip, the heroine has a lot of agency in this one. She doesn’t end up going with him because of the threatened lawsuit; she goes with him because she is in cahoots with  his grandmother, and is thwarting his efforts to “protect” the old woman by interfering with her bucket-list exploits.

I’ve got to be honest here: Ethan’s grandmother, Carol, may be my favourite person in this book. I would seriously read an entire romance about this woman. Even as a minor character, she shines.
But that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the hero and heroine. Uptight Ethan Wright (OMG, I only just noticed that that makes him “Mr. Wright”) and much-more-relaxed Tia Gray were great together.
My single favourite moment came immediately after Tia has confided in him about all the various stress coming at her from her family. I have read SO MANY romances in which the heroine learns to put up with/placate/win the hearts of insanely demanding family members (in Harlequin Presents it’s frequently an insane mother-in-law), and it always drives me crazy. It’s just such an unhealthy, please-step-on-me-again behaviour. So when Ethan tells Tia to stop enabling them, and let her adult family members deal with the consequences of their own actions, I practically cheered.
Active Ingredients:
Heroine is the Only Real Adult in her Family
Family Business
Impending Sequels?
Uptight Lawyer
Elders Gone Wild
Makeover-Induced Life Changes