Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

Kathleen Woodiwiss

Guest Review: The Flame and The Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss

Guest Review: The Flame and The Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss

If you haven’t read this post yet, please do so. The following is a guest review. No, sorry, discursive thought summary on The Flame and The Flower by our new guest reviewer, AJH.

Kickin’ It Old School: The Flame and the Flower

I thought I knew where I was with F&F from the final sentence of the very first paragraph:

The thatched cottage stood between spindly yews and, with shutters open and door ajar, it seemed to stare as if aghast at some off-color jest. (p.1)

Omg, I thought to myself, this is such a hardcore bodice ripper, even the buildings have their virtue threatened. But, truthfully, dear reader, I was not prepared.

The Flame and The Flower by Kathleen WoodiwissYou probably all know, inside out and back to front, the basic plot of this book but here goes nothing: Heather is a beautiful and virtuous maiden who lives with her Evil Aunt and Hopeless Uncle. Evil Aunt arbitrarily decides to sell her into prostitution. Heather flees the first of many would-be rapists, only to be mistaken for prostitute anyway by two dudes who have been dispatched by the hero, Captain Brandon Birmingham, who is looking to acquire a ho into whom he can place his penis. As it does not seem to cross Heather’s mind at any point to say “um, I’m not a prostitute”, Brandon deflowers her and subsequently decides she is such a good penis repository that he will keep her. Heather runs back to her Evil Aunt, who mistreats her for a while until it becomes apparent Heather is with child. Captain Brandon is pressured into marrying her, which makes him throw – what we manly men call – a total strop. The newly married couple go shopping and have a lot of baths, and a lot of arguments, and eventually set sail for America. In America, there is an Evil Ex and an Evil Cripple, and they fall in love. I mean, Heather and Brandon fall in love. Not the Evil Ex and the Evil Cripple, though they would probably get on well together. There are also some murders, but not of anybody we cared about. The end.

I will not lie: I spent a lot of this book confused and slightly worried, which had less to do with the plot (implausibility does not trouble me – I like books about dragons, remember) than the behaviour of all the people in it. Even the apparently nice ones. Especially the apparently nice ones. Thankfully, I was able to navigate who were supposed to be the good guys because morality in F&F seems largely determined by body shape.

Our heroine, Heather, is thin and righteous and, we soon discover, possesses a couple of super-powers: the first of which is the ability to make all men instantly want to rape her and the second is the ability to make all women instantly hate her. I feel these were an unfortunate choice and she should have held out for super-speed or invisibility. I found it rather difficult to get a handle on her, not because she’s devoid of character, but because she goes through such a lot over the course of the book (this poor woman is semi-violated more than most people sneeze) that she’s constantly in flux. ‘Terrified of being raped’ and ‘escaping from a rapist’ are not exactly what you’d call a personality. I could be reading it wrong, but I think the ‘true’ Heather is supposed to emerge in the second half of the book when she finally has a home and some security. She becomes very wifely, at this stage, in what I personally found a discomfortingly Stepford way but I think there’s enough textual evidence in there to suggest that this always what she wanted, and who she was, and she hasn’t just been brainwashed by Brandon’s, err, mighty wang.

Unfortunately, this was also the point at which I completely lost touch with Heather. In a weird way it reminded me a lot of Richardson’s Pamela. Despite the fact Mr B is always spying on her bosom, Pamela is kind of cool in the first half of the book (spirited, resourceful under siege, protective of her bosom) but, once she’s tamed Mr B into marriage, she becomes this picture-perfect pattern of virtue and is, therefore, a bit of a bore. Heather is nearly always a picture-perfect pattern of virtue but, before she gets shipped off to America with Brandon, she’s quite sympathetic. She’s not exactly over-endowed in the brain department but I thought her fears and anxieties were depicted plausibly, and – without going crazy-spunky about it – she does display some degree of resourcefulness in escaping from Brandon. And, now I think about it, she takes out Rapist #1 armed only with a small knife for peeling fruit. Which is totally Brian Blessed awesome. Respect, Heather, respect. Whereas in America she sits around sewing and being pregnant.

The other thing I found a bit hard to navigate was the fact Heather seems to go actively dangerously nuts in Brandon’s presence. Maybe I’m just an incurable romantic but I was under the impression that a lover should, y’know, bring out the best in you. There were several occasions when her behaviour genuinely made ‘do not date, do not date’ sirens start howling in my head.

The first warning sign occurs when Heather and Brandon are sleeping in a tavern, not long after their … what’s the Regency equivalent of a shotgun wedding? Flintlock wedding. Some men break into the room with the aim of kidnapping Heather. Brandon is so very very manly that he confronts the interlopers stark bollock naked and forces them to jump out of a second storey window, from whence sounds of their breaking limbs and obvious pain drift up from the street. Now, I agree that these are not good men but they are clearly poor and uneducated (you can tell because they have common people accents and I think one of them might be fat) and probably have only limited ways to make a living. And, presumably, even fewer now they can’t walk. I’m not condoning kidnapping as a trade for the lower classes but I do feel making random members of the public, no matter how morally dubious, auto-defenestrate at whim crosses the line from self-protection to sadism. Not our Heather though. She greets Brandon’s display of rampant psychosis with “a soft ripple of musical laughter” (p. 141).

Then there’s the occasion when they’re on a ship halfway between England and America and Heather casually asks if she can have cream in her coffee. Brandon, I think entirely fairly, derides her for this hilarious and blatant display of utter stupid, by asking “Do you think we’ll find a herd of cows in the middle of the North Atlantic?” Whereupon Heather immediately bursts into tears and runs from the room. I felt, at that moment, I was sharing a Dude Look with Brandon. I mean, seriously, Heather, get a grip. This man was raping you a few chapters back, and now you’re crying because he was slightly verbally mean? What’s wrong with you?

The Flame and The Flower by Kathleen WoodiwissHowever, for me, the final nail in the coffin of my sympathy for Heather came in America, where she enacts one of the most masterfully passive aggressive manoeuvres I’ve ever witnessed, in life or fiction. She is like the Napoleon of manipulation. I didn’t know whether to applaud her or run away screaming, or applaud while running away screaming. Basically, she decides she going to make Brandon a Christmas present but, instead of using the abundant amount of money he owns and everybody keeps telling her she has the right to use, she sells some old dresses and uses the proceeds to knit him a cock sock (or some other hand-made garment, I forget the details). He is, of course, delighted with the gift when she presents it to him at Christmas, mistaking it for a gesture of genuine affection rather than the Woman Trap it blatantly is. The truth soon comes out and there is A Scene. I can’t tell whether this is genuinely meant to demonstrate Heather’s honesty and integrity in not wanting to take Brandon’s wealth for granted or if we are meant to think he brought it on himself for being a git to her earlier. To be fair, if I was married to Brandon at this point, I would have no faith in his human decency either but there’s just something so subtle and sinister about the Gift Trick that it scared the living hell out of me. And there’s no doubt that Heather knows exactly what she’s doing: “She sipped her tea daintily and lifted her nose with a slightly injured air. ‘Sir, I understood quite well,’ she needled, “that your money was not mine to spend.” (p. 291). Ye gods. Get out Brandon, get out now.

Speaking of Brandon, I found him as difficult as Heather, if not more so. I have just enough basic understanding of the genre to be able to recognise him as your Greater Spotted Alpha. Uber-virile, super-manly, over-bearing, possessive, obsessive and protective. But he’s also kind of a wankbucket and I don’t know to what extent that’s a side-effect of Alphadom or if it’s just him. Personally, I think can tell a lot about a person if there first act is to rape someone and that’s not the least sympathetic thing they do. To be honest, it’s probably a lot more understandable than some his later actions, because it’s just about attributable to an error of judgement, and Brandon is clearly a bear of very little brain.

What really threw me, however, was his behaviour afterwards. Once he’s comprehensively established that Heather was a virgin, she’s not a prostitute and she’s definitely not willing, he enthusiastically goes onto to rape her two more times. Seriously, dude. What gives? If I squint at it funny I can just about get my head round the first time. I mean, yes, I like to think most of us would take “no, no, please stop” as, y’know, indication that stopping would be a good idea right now but Brandon comes from the Mr Collins school of emotional intelligence and his blood seems to flow in one direction only. But why on earth does he keep on raping? (aaaand that sounds like a breakaway pop hit waiting to happen). And how are we meant to feel about it? To commit rape once may be considered unfortunate, twice looks like carelessness.

To be fair (I can’t believe I’m writing that sentence in this context), once they’re married, Brandon stops sleeping non-consensually with his wife. But I found his sexual behaviour reprehensible throughout: his justification for his two additional rapes is that Heather is so hot she deserves it (she was wearing a see-through gown as well, which I assume is the 1800s equivalent of a short skirt) and he basically stops raping her because he’s annoyed he’s been forced into marrying her and wants to punish her. Which just goes to show how messed up this man is. Yet, despite having instigated the whole no-more-raping rule, he whinges constantly throughout the first year of marriage that it’s her fault that he’s got nowhere to put his wang. Take some responsibility for your own penis, man!

I was genuinely having problems interpreting Brandon as any sort of fantasy figure until I realised how much time he spends taking Heather shopping and then it all clicked into place. For a fellow who impregnates women by looking at them and pushes bad guys out of windows, he’s remarkably – hilariously – metrosexual. When these two aren’t bathing or fighting, they’re out buying dresses. It’s like the Pretty Woman Rodeo Drive scene but, err, longer and duller. Well, duller for me. Don’t get me wrong, I like frocks but as an end product not as a process. You would probably have to be Julia Roberts to get me to voluntarily go clothes shopping with you but Brandon is totally into it.

Everything he selected she more than agreed with, and those discarded she had prayed would be. His sense of color astounded her. The man was gifted. She had to admit he chose better than she. (p. 160)

Dear me. He rapes virgins, defenestrates villains and can match a gown to a woman’s eyes at forty paces. What a guy.

Although Brandon and I did not get on (and since I wouldn’t go shopping with him we probably wouldn’t be a good match anyway), he does possess one trait that I found borderline endearing. Yes, that’s one, count ‘em, one. Whenever he’s having an internal monologue moment, he has an utterly bizarre habit of slipping into some kind of cod-Shakespearean dialect:

“Heather, this tiny purple flower from the moors, has dined upon my heart and now it grows within her and I have no more a heart to share. But my heart, thou hast betrayed me deep. You have closed all doors but one and that I slammed in anger.” (p. 311)

Now, I’m not very good at articulating my feelings either, so I sympathise but … whut? A small purple flower is eating your heart? And Heather has taken all the hearts? And there are doors in the hearts that are being slammed? Now, Brandon, sweetie, I may be going out on a limb here but … you’re unhappy about something aren’t you?

Oh bless him.

The Flame and The Flower by Kathleen WoodiwissSo, where does this leave us? Well. I had fun reading it, he damns with faint praise but – however important it may be in the development of the genre, or however much secret affection it may garner in the small, carnivorous purple flowers of readers’ hearts – I can’t say it did much for me. It’s exuberant, I’ll give it that. I was genuinely pretty shocked when I looked up from my Kindle, having followed Heather from an aghast country shack, through about six attempted rapes, via kidnapping, pregnancy and marriage, to discover I was barely 15% of the way through the book. I mean, 150 pages of a fantasy novel and you’re probably still in the prologue. So stuff really does happen in this thing. Stuff by the bucket load. So much stuff, I was pretty exhausted by the sheer stuff of the stuff. But I think the main problem, for me, was that I found Heather and Brandon both incomprehensible and largely unlikeable. It was borderline impossible to invest in the actual romance bit of the book, when the nicest thing I could think to say about them was: well, they probably deserve each other. Often followed by: God, I’m glad I’m not dating either of them.

I was somewhat discomforted by both the actual rape and the prevalence of rape, but that’s a personal rather than a universal judgement. I’m just squeamish and hand-wringy, ignore me. And, for a book written for women (right?), I found Heather’s second super-power a bit disconcerting. Nearly every other female character she meets is actively vile to her, for no apparent reason, but I suppose it keeps the focus on Brandon as a source of physical and emotional support. Also, I was quite disappointed to learn the term bodice ripper is a misnomer. Not a single bodice is ripped over the course of this novel. Not one. Just the occasional lightly torn chemise. But I guess chemise-wrecker doesn’t sound as cool.

On the other hand, personal reactions and confusions aside, I can sort of see what F&F was doing, or trying to do, and why it’s important. I guess there’s an extent to which we can see Heather and Brandon’s sexual relationship as … well … what’s the opposite of a metaphor? A literalisation of gendered power dynamics. Brandon can initially take what he wants, with no consequences, but eventually Heather is able to channel his desire down more socially and personally acceptable channels within the context of marriage. You could even go so far as to argue that Heather and Brandon reciprocally violate each other. Brandon, of course, literally, but then Heather (albeit inadvertently) blackmails him into marrying her, thus emasculating him and denying him the power of choice, just as he did when he raped her. Of course, this all takes as read a view of relationships in which women want marriage and security and men want sex and, err, sex, and the two must be traded from across the gender battlefield. But, Heather gets to have sexy fun times too, and on her own terms. Equally, it’s very clear that she wants the life she eventually fashions with Brandon. And, I think, perhaps that’s the important thing. Heather goes from having no choices, to being in a position to have everything she wants. And I guess that’s a decent fantasy for anybody, in the 1970s or not.

Everything I learned about life and love from reading The Flame & The Flower: to truly win a woman’s heart, throw some dudes out of a window, if you inadvertently have non-consensual sex with someone you might as well get a few more rapes in since the damage is done, fat people are evil, hair is remarkably emotionally expressive, boobs want to be free and should not be oppressed by clothing, nobody wore any underwear in the 1800s.

AmazonBNSonyKoboAppleARE

First Reads by the Dear Author Crew

First Reads by the Dear Author Crew

I thought it would be fun if reminisced about our first romance read.  To prime the pump, so to speak, I asked the Dear Author crew to write up a small post about their first romance reads.  Share your own reading experiences in the comments.

Janine (link to Janine’s posts)

Janine avatarI was thirteen years old when I discovered the genre with Johanna Lindsey’s Heart of Thunder (1983) ( A | BN | K S ).  This is a vintage book.  The heroine, Samantha, was spoiled and willful, the daughter of a wealthy rancher. She romances the hero, Hank, to make another man jealous, and then she dumps Hank cold.  Hank retaliates by forcing himself on her, which she finds blissful beyond imagining, and she punishes him for that by (A) shooting him, and (B) putting his face on “Wanted” posters.  And that’s just the beginning.

I kept this book for years, partly from nostalgia, but got rid of it long ago. It didn’t hold up for me because I lost the ability to believe in blissful rapes, because of weaknesses in the craftsmanship, and because the cycle of “I hate you / Let’s have sex” got tiring. I don’t miss it, but sometimes I miss aspects of the historicals of that era.  I miss the unapologetically flawed characters.  I miss the strong, take no prisoner heroines.  I miss the fire and the freshness of those books.  Most of all, I miss the excitement of discovering a new genre.

Dabney. (link to Dabney’s posts)

DabneyIn 1975, when I was 14 and living in Marin, California, I read about a million Barbara Cartland books. Not one of them made an impression on me. I got them from the library—I was also reading the classics constantly back then—and ran through about five a week. My family didn’t really watch TV, so Dame Cartland was my no-brain time. Then, one evening, our babysitter (I have three younger siblings) brought me a copy of Rosemary Rogers’ Sweet Savage Love. It changed my life.

I knew, of course, theoretically about sex. I and all my friends had paged through The Joy of Sex—and been grossed out by all that hair—and I’d even read Coffee, Tea or Me? and The Happy Hooker (My parents had “hidden” copies.) But none of those books made intercourse or oral sex seem like things I’d find wildly exciting. I was even on the fence about French kissing—I’d done it a couple of times and found it slobbery.

Then, I read Sweet Savage Love ( A | BN) and, suddenly, it was very clear to me I had a lot to look forward to. The sex in that book was so scorching; I read the love scenes between Steve and Ginny over and over again. Part of it was, I’m sure, Ginny never initiated anything—until the end of the book, her pleasure is always forced on her by Steve. That worked for me—I couldn’t see myself initiating anything with any male and so I thrilled to the idea that, some day, some gorgeous guy would inflict ecstasy on me. I paid no attention to the plot of the book—I feel sure I skimmed the long, involved sections about the Mexican Revolution. But, I loved reading about Steve and Ginny, their passion, their fights, and, their hard-won love.

I just reread Sweet Savage Love. I still find Steve and Ginny to be hot as hell.  I still was bored by most of the background plot. I was startled to read how many other lovers the two had and found that to be a bit of a turnoff and wondered I hadn’t noticed or cared about that aspect of the book when I was young. I also, in this read, felt too much in the book was over-the-top. Parts of just made me roll my eyes.

I still think Sweet Savage Love changed my life. Not only did it open my eyes to the possibility of torrid passion in my own life, it also significantly influenced what sort of romances I sought out then and still seek out now. I still like many an alpha hero and I still find sexy love scenes where the hero forcibly seduces the heroine.  When I read and enjoy Black Ice or To Have and To Hold, I suspect I do so in part because of my response, so many years ago, to Steve Morgan’s seduction of Ginny Brandon.

 

Josephine (link to Josephine’s posts)

The Problem with Josephine - Lucy AshfordI was a reading glutton as a kid. When I discovered an author with a long back list, I read my way through it, book after book after book until there was nothing left. Some of my early favorites were Barbara Cartland, Agatha Christie and Anne McCaffery. Later, Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, and Marion Chesney. I had a Jude Devereaux phase in high school. Initially, I chose my favorite authors by how many books they’d written. Appreciation for quality over quantity came with time.

The first romance that stands out in my memory was a regency about about a timid plain jane who kisses her unrequited crush at a masked ball only to return to her wallflower ways before the night is out, leaving the smitten object of her affections to search for her until, years later, he gives up and marries an heiress for her money. The heiress just happens to be…the wallflower. The weird thing about the story is that the heroine begins an affair with her own husband, and he never recognizes her. I forgot the title of the book, and only found it again last year: A Masked Deception by Mary Balogh. While I will always have a soft spot for stories that feature disguise or mistaken identity, A Masked Deception ( A | BN) did not hold up well to rereading. It is yet another entry on the long, long list of Things I Thought Were Great When I Was Twelve But Now, Meh.

Jayne. (link to Jayne’s posts)

Jayne AvatarLooking back, I’m trying to remember what first got me started with romance. I used to read a lot of Molly Costain Haycraft and Norah Lofts books – especially about European royalty. I remember as an adult being bummed when I discovered just how much vaseline they’d smeared on the lens of historical fact to make those HEA sound real.

Next I advanced to Barbara …. Cartland…and all her…heart shaped face heroines….and manly, dark haired….heroes. Honestly the covers of those books make the scowling hero look as if he’s about to snap the child sized heroine in half. When I got bored with the Cartland books I branched out at our local UBS – I still have fond memories of that place – and tried lots of the old Fawcett Crest imprints (Sylvia Thorpe and Mira Stables were favorites of mine) which is where my love of Georgian era books began. Oh yes, and Alexander Dumas and “The Three Musketeers.” Lurve, lurve, lurve me some swashbuckling.

After being scarred from skimming a copy of one of my mother’s books – Beulah Land (shudders) – it took me a while to try a straight old skool historical of the times (this is the late 70s) but I finally took the plunge. The first one I recall is Woodiwiss’s “The Wolf and the Dove.” ( A | BN) Ah, Aislinn (and I wondered for years how the hell her name was supposed to be pronounced) and Wulfgar. This is the book to which I compare all Bastard Norman Knight + Saxon Heroine novels to this day. This is also when I discovered Mary Stewart’s books and read my first Heyer and fell in love with “The Masqueraders” ( A | BN | K S ) (Georgian again!) and “Beauvallet.” ( A | BN | K S )

When I left for college, romance reading fell a bit by the wayside and it was 4 years before I stumbled upon the first 3 books in a reissue of a series I’d never heard of but which sounded interesting. Once I got started with the first one though, I was glued to it and eagerly snapped up the next 3 books when they came out, lost in the world of Lymond. Let me pause for a moment’s reverential silence for the great Dorothy Dunnett.

It still took me almost 10 years after college to really get back into reading romance. I’ve revisited TWTD, which has held up surprisingly well, but … I think … Cartland is well … in my past.

Jennie. (link to Jennie’s posts)

JennieThere wasn’t one great book that started me on romance. I know I read a few here and there in my teenage years (when I was mostly into horror), but the book that got me seeking out good romances in my 20s (and drew me into the romance community) was ostensibly not even a romance novel – Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. Whatever genre you call it, the book enthralled me. So much so that I immediately tried to recreate the magical feeling I got from it, with mixed results. I remember reading a couple of books I didn’t hate (a Sandra Brown contemp called, I believe, Where There’s Smoke, and an over-the-top but very hot Indian romance by Brenda Joyce, Fires of Paradise) and a couple I did (Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower and a very rapey – rapier even than TF&TF! – by Catherine Coulter, the name of which escapes me). I think it took me at least several months to find my direction as a true romance reader. It wasn’t until I stumbled on my first Laura Kinsale novel, Seize the Fire, that I really got a taste again of what had gripped me as I read Outlander – that sense of being transported, of feeling some facsimile of the intense emotions the characters themselves felt. I went on to discover Patricia Gaffney, Penelope Williamson, and other – even better – Laura Kinsale novels, but it was Seize the Fire that hooked me for good.

Robin. (link to Robin aka Janet’s posts)

Robin JanetIn college, I used to worry about my roommate, who spent a lot of time around finals reading Romance novels instead of studying (I shouldn’t have worried, though – she’s brilliant and now an influential scholar in her own field). It wasn’t until years later that the same roommate, now a dear friend, got her revenge by putting together a Romance conversion package for me. On the initial list were books by Judith Ivory, Laura Kinsale, Jo Goodman, Patricia Gaffney, and others, although the first two books were Ivory’s Black Silk and Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star.

I don’t remember which I read first, although I think it was Black Silk, only that my experience of them was very different. The Shadow and the Star fascinated but repelled me, mostly because of Leda, who seemed to embody all the negative stereotypes I’d associated with the genre – passive, weak, moralistic, a martyr.

Black Silk ( A | BN | K S ), on the other hand, captivated me: it reminded me of the literary fiction I grew up loving and drew me beyond it. I adored Submit’s quirky, incisive standoffishness and was utterly seduced by Graham’s cheeky, dissolute autocracy. That book confounded every awful cliché I’d harbored about Romance and made me curious to read on to Goodman and Gaffney and Spencer, and beyond. I even circled back to The Shadow and the Star, which upon another reading (or three), finally won me over, as well, once I understood the language of the genre well enough to read Leda more proficiently. Still, though, Black Silk remains my favorite Romance novel of all time, possibly because I read it first, but certainly because its lush, eccentric complexity makes me fall back in love with it every time I re-read it.

January. (link to January’s posts)

January avatarI spent a lot of time raiding my mother’s bookshelves in-between library visits or when I ran out of Sunfire books (remember those?) My mother had a lot of Jude Deveraux, Catherine Coulter, and Judith McNaught. I believe my first foray into ‘official’ romance was Whitney, My Love ( A | BN | K S ). I remember the cover of WML was a pencil drawing of a waif with big, wild hair and sparkly blue eyes and I fell in love with that book before I opened the first page. On the inside, I was less than enthralled with Whitney. She was an ass. Of course, Clayton was a bigger ass, so it worked out for them.

I’d never read something so dramatic and so intensely emotional as that book. Whitney and Clay were awful people, but the entire world of that book existed solely in the confines of that ridiculous relationship, and I ate it up like candy. I’m inclined to think that the rape scene in that book warped a piece of my 12 year old brain. To this day, I still love WML despite it’s massive flaws, awful love triangle, whiny heroine, and the forced seduction trope. Even now I’m willing to forgive horrible characters as long as they glue me to the page.

Jia. (link to Jia’s posts)

JiaWhile I am, and have always been, predominantly a speculative fiction reader, I was exposed to romance novels fairly early in life. I was around 12 or so when my grandmother give me a ton of her old category romances from the 70s and early 80s. Some of these books were seriously vintage — it’s how I knew Silhouette wasn’t always part of Harlequin and was once a completely different publisher!

The bulk of these books were from the Harlequin Presents line. I read them all. Some were forgettable. Some were enjoyable. Some faded from memory over time. The one that left a lasting impression, however, was the Violet Winspear. I wish I could remember the title.  The book itself was about a woman who intended to become a nun but had to put that off to take care of her younger sister, who had a form of hysterical paralysis. While staying at the Italian villa where her sister lived, she meets and falls in love with the brother of her sister’s husband. Looking back, it was a very melodramatic, angsty and overwrought book with a very alpha hero — which, I suppose, fits the Presents line very well. I don’t recall the heroine being a doormat though; she very much had a spine of steel but she definitely came from the school of Plain Jane spinster heroines.

All those Harlequin Presents left their mark though. To this day, I will forgive much if the emotional arc of a book, no matter the genre, is strong and intense. In fact, I prefer a messy, flawed book with a strong emotional core over the perfect, technically competent one that’s emotionally sterile. It explains quite a bit about my reading choices through the years.

Lazaraspaste. (link to Lazaraspaste’s posts)

LazaraspasteI’m not really sure how I started reading romance. I think I just went to the other side of the library. I had, of course, read a Barbara Cartland my mother randomly possessed aloud for the amusement of cousins and sisters, but I didn’t properly read the book. The first romance I properly read was Amanda Quick’s The Paid Companion. ( A | BN) I think I was looking for books about governesses because I’d been through all the Mary Stewarts nineteen times and wanted something similar. Strangely, I was also thinking that a really good idea for a story was one where a guy hired some chick to be his fiancé. I don’t know why I was thinking this, but I was. When I stumbled on The Paid Companion, I realized it had the plot from my imagination. This was very serendipitous. So that’s the story: aristocratic dude hires governess to pose as his fiancé because he doesn’t want to get married. Sparks fly and they fall in love. I don’t remember much else about it. I think she lost her virginity near a fountain at a ball. That’s kind of it. It sent me on a glom, though. I rapidly made my way through all of Amanda Quick’s books and then just haphazardly began to pull others that had my favorite tropes—or seemed to, based on the back blurb and online book reviews—from the shelf.

I still dig romance novels with governesses. This is because I love Jane Eyre. If one really wanted to be technical about it, I suppose my actual first romance novel was Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting, but I read that as a mystery novel. When I was a pre-teen, I read mainly mystery novels so I don’t count that one. I didn’t think of it as romance and I didn’t know that’s what it was. I know now in retrospect. I haven’t read The Paid Companion since, but I’ve tried re-reading other Amanda Quick novels. They just don’t do it for me anymore. My tastes have changed. But they may change back. There may come a time when I re-read it and I enjoy it once again. I still like stories about governesses, though. There’s something about the plot (which is really just Jane Eyre) that I find fantastically satisfying. I think it is because stories about governesses are often stories about loneliness and limited choices, and I find that speaks to me. They are my bread and butter.

Sarah Frantz. (link to Dr. Sarah’s posts)

Sarah FMy first romance was Anne Weale’s The River Room ( A | BN). My mother left it lying around the living room one day when I was 12 and I picked it up. It was a typical Harlequin Presents: the secretary (or similar) heroine, the overwhelming hero. I enjoyed it, but soon after that, I read Roberta Leigh’s Man in a Million and there was a line in there that hooked something in my soul and hasn’t ever let go:

Incredible though it was, she knew that this big, strong man was trembling; trembling because he was pleading with her to believe what he had said.

That view into the (female-authored) masculine psyche did it for me and I never looked back. Significant romances since then have tended towards the BDSM side of things: some of Johanna Lindsey’s early stand-alones made an impact, with the not-quite-forced sex of Secret Fire ( A | BN), Prisoner of My Desire ( A | BN), and Warrior’s Woman ( A | BN ). My mother and I shared Harlequin Temptations from 1988 for a few years, and Candace Schuler’s Sophisticated Lady (1989) ( A | BN) had the first sex scene I read in which someone gets tied up. In 1996 I discovered Laura Kinsale’s damaged heroes (especially Sherry from Seize the Fire ( A | BN)) when I worked at Barnes & Noble for a summer. And Robin Schone and Susan Johnson in 1997.

My first m/m romance was a link to Matthew Haldeman-Time’s free short stories on his website, sent to me by author Stephanie Vaughan (the only author except Joey Hill who managed to write a successful femdom/malesub book that I enjoyed): http://www.matthewhaldemantime.com/shortstories.html. Then his wonderful Off the Record. Then…I don’t remember, but I was hooked on m/m romance too.

And the rest is history.

Sunita. (link to Sunita’s posts)

SunitaOh man, I have to go back a LONG way for this. I must have been about 12. My mother let me use her adult library card and I found April Lady ( A | BN), by Georgette Heyer, on the paperback rack (I even remember the cover). It featured a Marriage of Convenience, older man/younger woman, and plenty of lively supporting characters. I’m pretty sure some of it went over my head, but I remember thinking the scene where Cardross, the hero, visits Nell in her bedroom was oh so racy. Clearly he wanted to make love to her! There was enough light humor mixed in with the (very tame) romance to make it appealing to me at that point. I wanted a love story, but nothing explicit. I blame it on my Indian background; this was before even college students dated openly, so I was hideously backward and ignorant when I arrived in the US. And in a weird way, 1810s London was closer to the world I’d left than the one I now inhabited (California in the 1970s).

I’m pretty sure I’d read Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt around the same time, but April Lady was the first novel in which the romance was front and center. I was hooked on Heyer and the genre from then on. The town I lived in was the county seat and it had a big main library and a couple of branches. They had all the Heyers and a lot more. Those libraries kept me going with a couple of books a week (more in the summers) until I went away to college.

Jane. (link to Jane’s posts)

JaneI started out reading romances by surreptitiously reading my sister’s stash. I think she kept them under her bed. Romances were verboten in my household but I remember reading them under the covers with a flashlight.  I made the mistake of telling Ned this and now whenever I catch my daughter reading in her bed, with a flashlight, I get a reproving look from Ned if I attempt to admonish the tot. Clearly reading by flashlight is a family tradition.  I recall reading Harlequin Romances. There were no sex scenes but a plethora of punishing kisses.  Back in the day, I equated romances with category books. I was afraid of the bigger books, the ones known as mass market, because sometimes they were filled with women making bad choices aka breaking up with men and running off to live a life of happiness by themselves.  What insanity!  Please remember I was like twelve at the time.

The first big book I remember reading was Whitney My Love. ( A | BN | K S )  Like January above, that book was transformative in my reading life. First, I had no idea that romances came in hardcover form. Man, there were entire swaths of the library that opened up to me that hadn’t before.  Second, it was the first book I recall that had explicit sex scenes in it. I did not understand at the time that Clayton was raping Whitney. I only knew that he was hurting her and that he hurt her throughout the book when she didn’t deserve it.  But I also recall being frustrated with Whitney (don’t talk to Paul, you silly chit!). Yet the melodrama was something my young teen self wolfed down, dabbing my eyes with kleenexes in between helpings.

My reading life took another turn when I bought Scandal ( A | BN | K | S ) by Amanda Quick. It was one of the first romance books I purchased. I remember buying it from a local convenience/gas store called Tom Thumb and it was in the wire racks above the magazines.  I purchased it with money I earned delivering papers.  I loved that book and still do. It is worlds away from the rapetastic melodrama that was Whitney, My Love, but I remember both with fondness and appreciation. Both McNaught and Quick/Krentz along with Joan Wolf’s Candlelight Ecstasy romances form the foundations of my romance reading world.