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REVIEW: Once in a Blue Moon by Penelope Williamson

Dear Ms. Williamson,

For my inaugural review for Dear Author, I thought it would be nice to review an old favorite (my thinking being that then I wouldn’t have to sharpen my claws right away).

Having been reminded of my fondness for "outsider" romances by a recent read (Meredith Duran’s excellent The Duke of Shadows), I thought of your 1995 romance, set in Cornwall at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Once in a Blue Moon is a sterling example of this type of pairing, and has long been one of my all-time favorite romances to boot.

Jessalyn Letty is just sixteen, red-haired, awkward and a bit of a wild child when she meets McCady Trelawny, the newest Earl of Caerhays. McCady has inherited the title following the deaths of his dissolute older brothers, and there are those who think that he is destined to go down the same path: gambling, drinking, whoring and ultimately, suicide.

But McCady has some unexpected dimensions. He is a rake and a hellion, yes, but he’s also an inventor, and when he comes to the village in Cornwall where Jessalyn lives with her grandmother, he is working on the creation of a steam engine.

In fact, Jessalyn and McCady first encounter each other when the latest iteration of his invention explodes; she is nearby and attempts a rather ham-handed rescue of him. From that moment on, the two are fascinated with each other, albeit reluctantly. The reluctance is especially strong on McCady’s part, since he is well aware that Jessalyn is too young, too innocent and too poor for him; McCady needs to marry money to fund his inventions and to avoid debtor’s prison.

The story sprawls over some 450 pages, as McCady and Jessalyn, meet, part, meet again and part again. In the meantime, Jessalyn grows up and is courted by a rival of McCady’s; McCady is forced to make some hard choices to save himself financially; both suffer shattering losses.

In picking up this book to refamiliarize myself in order to write this review, I was a little dismayed to flip through the pages and discover a number of passages that in retrospect strike me as a bit cheesy, melodramatic and clichéd. To wit:

He took a step toward her, and her breath left her chest in a low, keening moan. His mouth had taken on a ruthless slant, and the yellow sunbursts flared bright and hot in his eyes. He smelled of brandy now and a feral heat. A leashed violence seemed to shimmer in the air around him like heat waves off a smithy’s forge. As if he were a wild animal that had been caged too long and had gone suddenly mad from his captivity.

Okay; the snarky 2008 version of me wonders if McCady has had his rabies vaccinations.

But in thinking of your work as a whole, I am reminded that subtlety has never really been your strong suit, and in fact the histrionic sturm und drang was part of what made me love books like this one, Heart of the West and A Wild Yearning. Even the comparatively restrained The Passions of Emma contains some moments that leave me caught between laughter and swooning.

Don’t get me wrong; by and large your prose is not purple, and Once in a Blue Moon is no bodice-ripper. What is actually impressive about your writing is that your hero and heroine have so strong an emotional connection, and your writing has such emotional immediacy, the reader can believe that they feel just that strongly; that McCady can resemble "a wild animal" in his yearning for Jessalyn.

And while some of the prose is a bit overwrought, much of the dialogue between McCady and Jessalyn, especially early in the book, sparkles:

"You were gone so long I thought something had happened," she said. "I came down to look for you, and I got a trifle lost."

"No one can be a trifle lost." He was getting quite red in the face. Doubtless because he was hanging upside down. "You are either completely lost or you aren’t lost at all. Is this an innate talent you have for turning the simplest expeditions into unmitigated catastrophes, or do you have to practice at it?"

"Don’t be beastly. It isn’t nice."

His head disappeared from the hole.

"Lieutenant!"

"Don’t move-don’t you move a bloody inch. I’m coming to get you."

"Thank you, but-"

"Think nothing of it. An afternoon spent crawling through dark and slimy tunnels and hollering myself hoarse has always seemed the epitome of entertainment to me."

"Lieutenant. I have a baby."

His head reappeared. "How in the bloody hell can a virgin have a baby? And don’t tell me it was an immaculate conception; that story just won’t wash a second time."

"I didn’t have her, you silly goose. I found her. Here. Just now."

"Of course. It stands to reason that you would go looking for trouble and find a baby."

I appreciate that even your secondary characters have depth; the woman who for a time stands between McCady and Jessalyn is as much a victim of their circumstances as the hero and heroine are. And the villain is not mustache-twirlingly evil or depraved; he is, in the end, rather pathetic in his desperate attempts to steal what he can’t capture rightfully. There is also a rather cute, if slightly silly secondary romance between Jessalyn’s maid and McCady’s valet, a sort of reverse Beauty and the Beast (he is an Adonis; she is plain and scarred, in addition to being kind of charmingly hare-brained).

The time and place are well rendered; I got a real feel for Cornwall, with its rocky cliffs, dangerous mines and rakish smugglers. Once in a Blue Moon is also a very hot, sexy read, in my opinion, though of course tastes vary on that sort of thing.

Finally, this book has one of my favorite last lines ever – not because it’s clever or beautifully written, but because it conveys with elegant simplicity how far McCady and Jessalyn have come.

My 1996 grade would be an A+, but 2008 Jennie has to mark this down a bit for overwroughtness – I’ll give it an A-.

~Jennie

This book is currently out of print.

  • Publisher: Bantam (May 1, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0440614120
  • ISBN-13: 978-0440614128

has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

25 Comments

  1. katiebabs
    May 13, 2008 @ 12:05:39

    This book is in my top 20 all time favorites and I must re-read it once a year. One of the best romances I have ever read.

  2. loonigrrl
    May 13, 2008 @ 12:17:29

    Good review! This is one of my favorites as well. I LOVE love this book. I think I’ve read it a dozen times or more.

  3. (Jān)
    May 13, 2008 @ 12:31:44

    LOL at the prose. But you’re right, it doesn’t matter because she always makes me feel so much for the characters. Great review! (This is your favorite book of hers? How do the others rank then?)

  4. Robin
    May 13, 2008 @ 12:50:32

    Finally, this book has one of my favorite last lines ever – not because it's clever or beautifully written, but because it conveys with elegant simplicity how far McCady and Jessalyn have come.

    Well, don’t leave me in suspense, Jennie; what’s the line?

    Great review! I have yet to read Williamson, but I have The Passions of Emma somewhere around here, I think, but maybe I should start with this one.

  5. DS
    May 13, 2008 @ 13:41:20

    Whatever happened to Williamson? She wrote two great historical mysteries set in 1920’s New Orleans (Mortal Sins and Wages of Sin) and then seemed to disappear under this name and under the Penn Williamson pseudonym.

  6. Bethany Allinder
    May 13, 2008 @ 13:53:02

    This looked wicked awesome and will hopefully break me out of historical funk of late. (I’m really struggling through Loretta Chase’s The Lion’s Daughter right now) but am pumping out contemporaries like a gumball machine. I just ordered OIABM through Paperback Bookswap because none of the libraries in my Inter-Library Loan system had it. Thanks for the review…although I would be interested in a “hotness” comparison with a current historical romance writer…say Sabrina Jeffries or Cheryl Holt?

  7. Jennie
    May 13, 2008 @ 13:53:03

    LOL at the prose. But you're right, it doesn't matter because she always makes me feel so much for the characters. Great review! (This is your favorite book of hers? How do the others rank then?)

    I think it’s probably a three way tie between this book, Heart of the West and The Passions of Emma for my favorite by Williamson. Each book is very different in setting, but the emotional intensity between the characters is similar. After that, I’d probably rank her other books thusly:

    Recommended:

    A Wild Yearning (the first book of hers I read, if memory serves)
    Hearts Beguiled (probably HTF, but very satisfying and kind of different)
    The Outsider (I think this is a favorite of a lot of readers, and I did like it a lot, but not quite as much as the others I’ve listed – maybe because the setting interested me a little less)

    Not recommended:

    Wings of Desire – written as Elizabeth Lambert (I don’t remember it well but it maybe felt kind of YAish to me?)
    Keeper of the Dream (I know some people love this one, but I didn’t see what was so great about it)
    Beloved Rogue (her first book and disappointingly boring, from what I remember)

    I haven’t read her Penn Williamson mysteries, though I’ve had the first one in my tbr pile since it was written a million years ago. I should just read the damn thing, already.

  8. Jennie
    May 13, 2008 @ 14:00:18

    Well, don't leave me in suspense, Jennie; what's the line?

    Great review! I have yet to read Williamson, but I have The Passions of Emma somewhere around here, I think, but maybe I should start with this one.

    Ack, how do you spoiler bar posts around here? (Not that the last line is a spoiler, but I think it’s more powerful if it’s unexpected).

    I seriously love The Passions of Emma. I think it’s Williamson’s most meaty book. If you don’t have a problem with her prose, I think you’ll love it. (And again, her prose is not bad – I wouldn’t love an author whose prose was bad, prose-snob that I am. It’s just again, a little overwrought and melodramatic at times, and perhaps takes a little getting used to. It think of it as sort of stylized – like old-time film performances that perhaps weren’t as natural as good acting today is, but worked somehow anyway.)

    IIRC, Janine read The Passions of Emma and liked it but found it slightly downbeat. I didn’t find it so, but I can see why someone might. It’s not a light book, though it does have an HEA.

  9. Robin
    May 13, 2008 @ 14:04:00

    Jennie, I usually just post spoiler warnings in my comment and then scroll way down when I post the spoiler.

    IIRC, Janine read The Passions of Emma and liked it but found it slightly downbeat. I didn't find it so, but I can see why someone might. It's not a light book, though it does have an HEA.

    I think it’s that “downbeat” thing that has kept me from pushing it to the top of my TBR. I love intense books, but have to be in the mood for a long, dark book.

    Aren’t Williamson and Candice Proctor sisters? I seem to remember that from somewhere.

  10. Jennie
    May 13, 2008 @ 14:08:34

    This looked wicked awesome and will hopefully break me out of historical funk of late. (I'm really struggling through Loretta Chase's The Lion's Daughter right now) but am pumping out contemporaries like a gumball machine. I just ordered OIABM through Paperback Bookswap because none of the libraries in my Inter-Library Loan system had it. Thanks for the review…although I would be interested in a “hotness” comparison with a current historical romance writer…say Sabrina Jeffries or Cheryl Holt?

    Oh, Bethany, I hope you like it! I want to help you break out of your historical funk; I’ve had plenty of those myself.

    As for hotness, I’ve never read Sabrina Jeffries (did she used to write as Deborah Martin, or is that someone else? If so, I read one book by her and didn’t like it much, but that was years ago). Cheryl Holt I think of as skirting on the edge of erotica, at least the books I’ve read. Her love scenes seem to me to be sort of more calculated to arouse rather than being a natural part of the book. (Am I making sense? Sometimes when I read certain books that I know are supposed to be hot, I get a sense of calculation, like there has to be a sex scene every x number of pages, and there has to be certain variations that are hit on, sex from behind, or fellatio, or whatever. That’s how Holt reads to me.)

    Williamson’s sex scenes are more organic; I don’t think there are any love scenes in OIABM until past the half-way mark. But there is plenty of sexual tension, and not the fakey mental lusting I’ve come to hate, but genuine sexual tension that will curl your toes. There are a couple of love scenes late in the book that I just found very, very hot, because I really felt the emotional intensity between the characters. I would say the level of descriptiveness would be “hot” but not “burning”, if I were to borrow another website’s love-scene rating system.

  11. Bethany Allinder
    May 13, 2008 @ 14:51:38

    You’re right, Sabrina Jeffries is the former Deborah Martin working for Pocket Books now and I have never read Cheryl Holt either! I just left my publishing job last month, which was affiliated with St. Martin’s Press, and she was one of the authors I stocked up on before I left. I skimmed one of her books and immediately listed it and the others on Paperback BookSwap! Thanks again.

  12. Jennie
    May 13, 2008 @ 15:21:51

    Jennie, I usually just post spoiler warnings in my comment and then scroll way down when I post the spoiler.

    I think it's that “downbeat” thing that has kept me from pushing it to the top of my TBR. I love intense books, but have to be in the mood for a long, dark book.

    Aren't Williamson and Candice Proctor sisters? I seem to remember that from somewhere.

    Yes, they are sisters. I can kind of sort of see it in their writing, though honestly, Night in Eden is the only Proctor book I really loved.

    I think the thing with TPOE is that it’s kind of realistic – I think it was Williamson moving a bit out of the romance genre and into sort of historical women’s fiction. The realism makes the bad things that happen (and bad things do happen) a little more intense. Though in a way, I approve of the realism – I get really annoyed with romances where all sorts of terrible, dark things happen and the characters don’t seem marked or affected by it at all.

    (For some reason, the discussion of “downbeat” romances is making me think of books that I’ve read that qualify – the one that comes first to mind is Megan Chance’s Gentleman Caller. Now that is a depressing book. Not even necessarily realistic, just depressing. I like Chance’s writing and enjoyed some of her books – The Portrait comes to mind) – even when I found the HEA unconvincing. But GC just depressed me.)

    Okay, SPOILER (sort of) for the end of OIABM:

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    The final line of the book is “I love you”, said by McCady to Jessalyn. It’s significant because there are several points late in the book when he knows he should say it, and he almost does say it, but he just can’t. So it represents a breakthrough for him, and I thought it was the perfect note to end the book on.

  13. Keri M
    May 13, 2008 @ 15:57:14

    I have the book I just haven’t read it yet. Dang my TBR pile is huge! I have read Passions of Emma and The Outsider and I liked them both. It has been along time ago though for details. If you are looking for a lengthy strong romantic historical then she fills the bill. Keri

  14. Kerry
    May 13, 2008 @ 15:58:58

    Cheryl Holt writes the same book over and over again, and in her later books its obvious that she has no fondness at all for her characters.

  15. Janine
    May 13, 2008 @ 16:22:01

    IIRC, Janine read The Passions of Emma and liked it but found it slightly downbeat. I didn't find it so, but I can see why someone might. It's not a light book, though it does have an HEA.

    Hmm. I don’t remember finding The Passions of Emma downbeat, though I did cry a lot in the middle part. Tearjerking, yes, but not really downbeat. What you may be remembering is that I felt the women’s friendship dominated the book, and that the romance between the hero and the heroine seemed more understated in comparison. It wasn’t a hugely romantic book to me, but I did find it well-written and moving, and I’d give it at least a B+. It reminded me a bit of LaVyrle Spencer’s November of the Heart, which is one of my favorite Spencers.

    Yes, they are sisters. I can kind of sort of see it in their writing, though honestly, Night in Eden is the only Proctor book I really loved.

    Didn’t you also like Proctor’s mystery under her C.S. Harris name, What Angels Fear?

  16. Blythe Gifford
    May 13, 2008 @ 16:46:44

    Just had to pop into a discussion on one of my absolutely all time favorite authors, Penelope Williamson. Everything I have read of hers is on my keeper shelf. I am still hoarding some of hers unread, this one included, for the future when I need a fix. I loved The Outsider and The Passions of Emma. And the two mysteries are stunning and all together different, although the wonderful use of language continues. Just much leaner and sharper. Candace, now C.S. Harris, is also right up there for me. Why is it that my favorite romance authors are no longer writing romance?
    Blythe, who must get back to her deadline

  17. (Jān)
    May 13, 2008 @ 18:24:06

    I’ve not read as many of her books as you have Jennie, just this and The Outsider, Heart of the West, The Passions of Emma, and Keeper of the Dream.

    I have a note on my book database about KotD. I gave it a 5/10 and just said “Hate, love, hate, love, humiliation, love”, lol.

    For the others, I put The Passions of Emma at the top, and this one and The Outsider above Heart of the West (the separation of the h/h in that was too long for me). Those are all rated very highly though (TPoE was an A+ book for me).

  18. Jennie
    May 13, 2008 @ 18:44:37

    Cheryl Holt writes the same book over and over again, and in her later books its obvious that she has no fondness at all for her characters.

    I can’t remember how many books I’ve read by her (two or three?), but I don’t think she’s a very good writer. She’s one of those writers who goes crazy with the thesaurus trying to come up with synonyms (“countenance” for “face”, etc.) for simple words, and it makes her writing feel really clunky to me.

    Hmm. I don't remember finding The Passions of Emma downbeat, though I did cry a lot in the middle part. Tearjerking, yes, but not really downbeat. What you may be remembering is that I felt the women's friendship dominated the book, and that the romance between the hero and the heroine seemed more understated in comparison.

    Oh, maybe that was it. I did like the relationship between the h/h, maybe all the more because it wasn’t love or lust at first sight, at least on his part. For Emma’s part, I think there was a fascination right away but it really changed and deepened as she came to know him, and it was romantic for that reason.

    Didn't you also like Proctor's mystery under her C.S. Harris name, What Angels Fear?

    D’oh. Gosh, I am senile and totally forgot about the C.S. Harris nom de plume. Yes, I liked What Angels Fear, and also the third book in the series, Why Mermaids Sing. The second book in the series, When Gods Die, was a bit of a disappointment to me. But I’m definitely interested in the Sebastian St. Cyr mystery series and will continue to follow it.

  19. Jennie
    May 13, 2008 @ 18:50:39

    For the others, I put The Passions of Emma at the top, and this one and The Outsider above Heart of the West (the separation of the h/h in that was too long for me). Those are all rated very highly though (TPoE was an A+ book for me).

    I think with HOTW, if you’re reading it as a straight romance, you’re inevitably going to be frustrated because it’s like a 600-page book and the h/h get together in the last 25 pages or so. So I appreciate it for the other stuff that goes on, the heroine’s emotional development, the secondary romances (both of which are quite touching), the longing between the h/h (even though that is painful to even reread, knowing how much they end up having to go through to be together). In the end, it’s a little bittersweet to me; I tend to have that reaction to books where the h/h want to be together for a long time before they actually get together (which is why I’m sometimes a bit iffy on reunion romances). There’s just something poignant about that lost time. But ultimately I think HOTW is just beautifully written and compelling (and I say that as a non-fan of Westerns; my standard line is that I don’t want to have to read about pigs being mucked, whatever that might involve); I would love it even without the HEA.

  20. Kristie(J)
    May 13, 2008 @ 21:28:52

    I’m still broken up by the fact that she’s no longer writing romance. I read OIABM quite a while ago and the thing that remains with me the strongest is the absolute LONGING Jessalyn and McCady had for each other. They were star crossed for the longest time and my heart broken in a number of places for Jessalyn.

  21. Nicole
    May 13, 2008 @ 21:52:47

    Thanks for reminding everyone about this book. It ranks as one of my all time favorites. As does Keeper of the Dream. And unlike some of the posters above, I freakin’ love that book. Raine is one of my favorite tortured heroes of all time. Any word on more Penelope Williamson upcoming goodness?

  22. Jennie F.
    May 14, 2008 @ 00:40:55

    As does Keeper of the Dream. And unlike some of the posters above, I freakin' love that book. Raine is one of my favorite tortured heroes of all time. Any word on more Penelope Williamson upcoming goodness?

    Yeah, I know a lot of readers love that one. I read it too long ago to remember the specifics of why it didn’t work for me, but I know that it didn’t. It just didn’t have the spark I’ve come to associate with the Williamson books that I really do love.

    I really don’t know if she’s still writing the Penn Williamson mysteries, or what. It’d be a shame if she wasn’t writing at all anymore, because she is so talented.

  23. Kirsten
    May 14, 2008 @ 10:08:21

    I love this book too. While most of my teenage romance novels remained in my mom’s basement, this is one of about 100 that travels with me wherever I move. When and if it comes out in ebook format, I will buy it again!

  24. taiki
    May 14, 2008 @ 11:05:34

    Thanks for your review of one of my all time keepers! I loved this book so much and i despair in not finding it in english. I have all her books in german (and yes, her books were one of the fews i moved with me from germany – thats how much i love her!), but its very hard to find any of the originals. I actually love her prose very much and i think it goes well with her stories. I don’t think i could read any of her stories in a more ‘Julia Quinnesque’ (as an example) sorta style.

    And she is not writing romance anymore – thats a hard loss. So sad, so sad. :(

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