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CLASSIC REVIEW:  A Soldier’s Heart by Kathleen Korbel

CLASSIC REVIEW: A Soldier’s Heart by Kathleen Korbel

Cleo is an artist, designer and avid reader. She’s been reading romance for more than thirty years. She reads almost every type of romance, except those with vampires, serial killers or jerky heroes.

kathleen korbel a soldier's heart

Dear Ms. Korbel,

When I read Jane’s call for reviews of classic romances, I knew that I wanted to review your book, A Soldier’s Heart. I read it in the mid 90s and it stayed with me. I finally tracked it down and re-read it last year and was impressed with how well it held up. It’s the first romance with protagonists with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that I ever read. Twenty years, and many PTSD romances later, I still think it’s one of the best I’ve read.

The book opens with a prologue – an unnamed army nurse saves the life of an unnamed marine sergeant in an evac hospital during the Vietnam War. The story begins some twenty years later, with the marine, Tony Riordan, working up the courage to go introduce himself to Claire Maguire Henderson, the nurse who saved his life. Seeking out Claire is part of Tony’s healing – he’s spent years laying to rest his ghosts from Vietnam. He unintentionally sets off a crisis for Claire, who hasn’t dealt with her past trauma yet. Tony realizes that his appearance brought up repressed emotions that Claire’s not quite ready to deal with, so he comes up with a way for him to stay in town and help if possible. Claire’s renovating an old inn, and he just happens to run a construction company, and offers to do some of the renovations at cost. I liked Tony so much that I was willing to accept the convenient coincidence. He’s upfront with Claire, and everyone who wonders what he’s doing, that he’s there primarily to help her heal. He’s also honest with himself that he’s attracted to Claire.

Most of the story takes place over a period of several weeks, while Tony works on the inn. There’s not a lot of external conflict – most of the story is about Claire facing her past while falling for Tony. I loved reading about two adults cautiously, and then not so cautiously, start a new relationship. Tony and Claire are both forty-something single parents, with careers, support networks and responsibilities, and they act like grown ups. There’s a sub-plot involving Claire’s older child, 17-year-old Johnny, who’s learning to fly and wants to enlist in the Air Force. The story’s set during the UN intervention in Somalia in 1993 or 1994, and the build up of US troops in Somalia triggers both Johnny’s desire to join the military and Claire’s PTSD symptoms. While the main story arc is Claire moving from denial to asking for help with her PTSD, it’s not a dark story. It’s emotional, but there’s also humor and sweetness.

I really like the portrayal of PTSD, which is almost a separate character. I have PTSD (from childhood trauma, not military service). I can only speak for myself, but this book rang emotionally true. The focus of the story is on Claire. We see her dealing with nightmares, flashbacks, and rages. We see her telling herself that she has no right to be upset, and that she’ll be fine as long as she keeps busy. We get hints of Tony’s past struggles too, but he’s further along in his healing, and it’s not really his story. I suppose I could be annoyed by the fact that the story is set up so that the man knows more than the woman, at least about dealing with PTSD. But Tony’s character is written in such a way that he doesn’t feel like an overbearing romance hero, who knows what the heroine needs better than she does. He doesn’t come across as thinking that he has all the answers, either for her or for himself. I love that he seeks out help for Claire almost immediately, but waits until she asks before telling her about the resources he’s found for her. As he says, “I’m like the library Claire. Information’s all there for the asking. But I’d never walk into your house and demand that you read.” (p 181) I’ve played variations of both Tony’s and Claire’s roles in my life, as the giver and receiver of help recovering from trauma, and they both resonated with me.

Treatment for PTSD has changed in the past twenty years, so before I re-read A Soldier’s Heart, I wondered if it might seem dated. Because the story focuses on Claire’s feelings, and on her journey from denial to asking for help, rather than on her actual treatment, I didn’t find it outdated. Some of the discussions about women and PTSD, however, did strike me as old-fashioned. Tony’s surprise that women who served in Vietnam also had PTSD made me roll my eyes. For example, here’s a passage from Tony’s first conversation with his vet center counselor about Claire and his concerns about how to help.

He’d somehow always thought of the victims as men. The men had suffered and the women had soothed. The women had appeared like a gift in Nam, bright-eyed and brash and smelling like Dove soap. A reward for having survived the time back in the boonies, a reminder that somewhere in the world there was still grace and compassion.

He hadn’t considered, all these years, that the women had brought home their own nightmares home.

Well, he thought it now.

Tony sighed, wished he were a lot smarter. A lot.

“We’re stupid, aren’t we?” he finally countered….“I really screwed it up, man. Tell me what to do.”

“Same thing you do with any of the guys you’ve run across. Just be there until I can get you extra help.” (pp. 48-9)

The thing that made it work for me is Tony’s self-deprecating sense of humor and the fact that he’s helped other, male, vets before. This isn’t just about saving the poor little woman. I also really liked that once Claire admits she needs help and finds someone at her local vet center to work with, Tony consciously backs off and lets her heal without becoming a crutch for her.

A few things bothered me as I was re-reading it for this review that I don’t remember noticing the first two times I read it. I thought the beginning was slow and the initial set up requires a suspension of disbelief – if I didn’t know that Tony was a romance hero, I’d worry that he was acting like a creepy stalker. Some of the supporting characters seemed one dimensional or cartoonish, particularly Peaches, Claire’s overprotective, ex-con pastry chef. And the writing style isn’t to my taste. It reminds me of Nora Roberts, particularly 1990s era Nora Roberts. I’m not sure how to characterize it except that I find it a bit choppy and distancing. Here’s an excerpt.

Claire turned her attention to her surprise houseguest. He was a dangerously good-looking man, filling out that apron and T-shirt with disconcerting effect. Well-honed muscles and long, lean lines. The glint of a well-worn chain and medal around his neck, worn for purpose rather than decoration, betraying his lack of pretension. The kind of man any sane woman would want in her kitchen cooking her pasta. (pp. 58-9)

But while I noticed some problems, I didn’t really care about them, because I LOVE THIS BOOK. I was completely emotionally invested in the characters and swept away by the story. I love the two main characters. I love their honesty, vulnerability, and subtle humor. I love how Tony helps Claire face her past and begin to heal so they can have a future together. Hell, I even love Tony’s mustache. I completely believe that they’ll live happily ever after. I’m not a crier and A Soldier’s Heart had me crying in public.

I’ve read quite a few romances with characters with PTSD in the past 20 years, some good and some really bad. In my opinion, they can go bad in two ways – either by taking the PTSD much too seriously or not seriously enough. Either the past trauma completely defines and overwhelms the heroine’s or (more often) the hero’s identity to the exclusion of everything else, or it’s magically cured by true love and/or hot sex. A Soldier’s Heart avoids both pitfalls. Re-reading it reminded me why I keep reading PTSD romances, despite the duds that I’ve encountered, because when they’re done well, the emotional payoff is incredibly rewarding. This is a lovely book. Thank you for writing it. My grade is an A-.

Sincerely,

Cleo

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CLASSIC REVIEW:  Honest Illusions by Nora Roberts

CLASSIC REVIEW: Honest Illusions by Nora Roberts

Shiloh Walker is an award-winning writer…yes, really! She’s also a mom, a wife, a reader and she pretends to be an amateur photographer. Now she’s going to try her hand at reviewing…temporarily. You can find Shiloh on her website or on Twitter.

Honest Illusions Nora Roberts

When I saw the call go up for reviews of ‘classic’ romances, I stopped to think…was there a book I’d read twenty years or so ago that I’d maybe enjoy reviewing?  Because, well, to review it fairly, I’d have to read it again.  I’d have to want to read it again.

And yep, there was a book.

This book. Honest Illusions by Nora Roberts.

Folks, I have to be honest and admit this here and now, without Luke and Roxy, I don’t know if I would be doing what I’m doing right now.  I write what I love to read, and this is the book that hooked me. I’d read a romance or few before this one, but I’d never been pulled into a story quite like this before.

It was almost magical, really.

Which is appropriate, considering this book is all about magicians.

Oh, and cat thieves.

The book opens up with a prologue—it’s short.  Roxanne—Roxy—performing an illusion in front of an audience.  That right there was enough to hook me.  I’d been fascinated by magicians ever since David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear—by the way, I once got called on stage with him.  It was awesome.  Anyway, back to the book.

Roxy finishes her illusion, leaves the stage to the roar and applause coming from the audience and goes to her dressing room.

There is a drop dead sexy man there and the tension between them all but makes your teeth ache.  It’s been five years since Luke Callahan up and disappeared, without a word, from Roxanne’s life and now he thinks he come crawling back?  Oh, no. That’s what Roxy thinks.

Oh, hell, yes…that is what Luke thinks…

There is kissing of a potent and passionate nature.  You know, the kind you think is going to lead lots of other potent, passionate things?

Nope.  The prologue ends and we find ourselves reading about Luke…back when he was twelve years old, a runaway who is bound and determined to escape the hell that had been his home.

This is when he meets Max Nouvelle, the man who is going to change his life.

He also meets the bratty Roxanne Nouvelle, Max’s daughter.

They are performers in a travelling carnival, performing magic acts and watching them, for the first time in Luke’s rough life, he finds himself just lost.  He’s able to lose himself inside the show.  While he’s watching, he forgets why he went inside the tent where the show was going on in the first place—he’d gone to pick a few pockets, steal some money from a few purses.

He managed to take a little money before he got caught up in the show. But he didn’t realize Max had had an eye on him the whole time.

I could go on forever but some people might want to actually read the book…so, we’ll sum it up. Luke finds himself basically adopted by Max.  He has a home, he’s loved, he’s happy…even if he does find Roxanne annoying.

Fast forward it a few years, oh, say ten.  The annoying brat still annoys him but naturally, it’s for different reasons.  He’s a grown man…she’s trying to convince her father to let her join the ‘other’ family business.  You know, the one where they sneak into the homes of rich people, steal jewels or paintings—always insured stuff.  They have their own code—an honor among thieves, if you will.  They wouldn’t steal from friends and they don’t steal from people who can’t afford it and the stuff they take is insured.

Of course, Max tells Roxy she isn’t ready…Luke agrees with him and not just because he doesn’t want to spend up close and personal time with her.

This pattern continues for a few more years—eventually Roxanne does get what she wants.  In on the family business of larceny…and Luke.  She has to go all out to seduce him, because the man has this idea in his head that it’s wrong, but she wants what she wants.

Things should be A-OK.

And that’s when the wrench gets thrown in.

You’ll have to read it to find out.

What do I love about this book?

It’s a first love sort of tale, reunited lovers…it’s got vengeance and glamour and magic.

When I sat down to read it a few days ago, I realized it’s probably been ten years since I have read it, maybe longer.  It’s hard to believe it’s been that long because this is the book that had me all but racing my bike back to the library to find more more more when I was done.

It wasn’t my first romance book—that was The Wanton by Rosemary Rogers and I was twelve.  Not too long after that, though, I discovered fantasy…Mercedes Lackey lured me in.  Then there was Stephen King and all that weirdness that awaited there.  So yeah, I’d read romance…I was just more into other stuff for most of middle and high school.

But then I met Luke and Roxy.  After that, I started gobbling up as many Nora Roberts books as I could.  She led to so many more.  More than twenty years later and I don’t know how many books, this is the one that stands out the clearest.

You’ve got the great storyline, the suspense thread, all the magic and the larceny. There’s Roxy with her confidence and her I’m not taking your crap attitude.  She was strength and grace and determination and stubbornness.

There was Luke.  Wow. Okay, this is like…shades of Roarke.  I can almost see the echoes of how Roarke could come into being when I read this.  There’s the thievery, the intelligence, the hungry child desperate for something more.  And both of them are so pretty.

Luke has a messed-up past and it drives him to do some reckless things, and then, some desperate things, things that send ripples throughout the book.  It was his love for Roxy, Max, and those who’d come into his life that drove him.

Max, Lily, Mouse…I loved them.  The supporting characters are amazing and part of me hurt so bad as life played out, because yeah, even in fiction it does.

The villain, well, let’s not go there, but he’s one of those cunning, sly bastards that hurts just to hurt.

The one weakness I see in the book is how a cunning, calculating SOB cracks so easy at the end.  Now this guy does not come off as sane, but he’s been so slick, and so determined to have revenge on his imagined slights, and it takes little to push him over.

That’s the only weakness I see in this book, but even that’s not enough to make say anything less than…I love it.  I won’t so long to reread it next time.

Even after twenty plus years, it’s still one of my favorites, and yeah, I’m pretty sure I have to thank Luke and Roxy for my love of romance.  Well, maybe I should thank Nora Roberts, instead.

My grade?  A-

 

Shiloh Walker

 

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