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REVIEW:  A Deeper Dimension by Amanda Carpenter

REVIEW: A Deeper Dimension by Amanda Carpenter

Dear Ms. Carpenter:

It’s always interesting to see romance authors reinvent themselves in a new genre or subgenre. I had just finished a “Thea Harrison” paranormal romance, so was primed to compare it to this much older work originally published as Amanda Carpenter. There is a similarity in the focus on external plotlines concerning the larger world — here, it’s the steel industry, rather than Fae politics. Other than that… well, this a category romance published 30 years ago, with all that implies.

deeperYou could tell A Deeper Dimension was an older Harlequin just from that lovely title. Alliterative, euphonious — even relevant to the plot, by golly! The “deeper dimension” is what Alex tries to convince Diana that she’s missing from life, in her refusal to become emotionally involved with people.

Diana begins her job as Alexander Mason’s executive assistant with some apprehension. She’s straight out of graduate school, and it’s still a male dominated field. But she quickly makes a place for herself by taking charge during an industry crisis, and grows increasingly close to her intense, energetic boss. Her attraction to him is unnerving however, “a threat to her strength of personality.” An abandoned baby who was bought up in the foster care system, the aptly named Diana is proud of her self-sufficiency, and afraid of human closeness:

She had never had any warmth or affection shown to her and she didn’t know how to take it… In Alex, she glimpsed a world alien to that which she had always known.

The story is told almost entirely from Diana’s point of view, but Alex’s warm feelings for her come through in his teasing, and his consideration for her well-being. (As well as occasional friendly kisses, which apparently was so appropriate between a boss and his assistant in 1983 that even Diana isn’t freaked out by them.) But Diana tenses when he tries to get closer to her:

“I think you’re right to count on yourself to pull you through a crisis. But there is a better way of life than that, Diana. You did fine when you had to survive, but that’s all you know how to do, survive. I’ve seen too many examples of another way of life, a better and deeper…”

“We had a pleasant day, didn’t we?” she interrupted. He fell silent as she continued, walking away. “I think you’d better leave it at that.”

After that the story goes in a pretty typical direction, with accusations of coldness, forced kisses, and even Alex shaking Diana. (Speaking as someone who’s read many old categories, it could be a lot worse.) The resolution of their conflict comes about in a startlingly melodramatic way, which feels out of place with the more low-key, realistic tone of the rest of the book.

As in many workplace romances, casual sexism and sexual harassment runs rampant in this story. At their first meeting, Alex jokingly tells Diana, “And don’t you ever call me ‘sir’ in that tone of voice, my girl, or I’ll turn you over my knee — yes, all six feet of you, and whack you over the bottom.” Although she could use some consciousness raising, Diana does often stand up for herself, asserting at one point, “I will not be taken for granted, nor will I be railroaded into something as if my wishes don’t matter! I mean more to me that that!” Since Alex is not an unmitigated jerk, the asshole:doormat ratio is actually surprisingly good.

A Deeper Dimension has very positive reviews amongst the Harlequin lovers at GoodReads, which makes me suspect I’m not the best audience for it — especially since I have a severe allergy to most lighthearted banter, which is how much of the courtship happens. My guess is that it’s also not likely to appeal to most “Thea Harrison” readers, unless they’re already fond of old categories and workplace romances, and aren’t disappointed with a “kisses only” story. For me, it was an okay read. C.

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REVIEW:  A Fallen Star by Janie Summers

REVIEW: A Fallen Star by Janie Summers

Dear Ms. Summers:

When it comes to retro romance there’s “charmingly dated” and then there’s “should have been left buried.” This book, originally published in 1987, is of a time and place that I really did not enjoy visiting.

fallen2The story concerns Holly, a photographer still mourning the accidental death of her mountaineer husband. Her family persuades her to take a job as a “girl friday” at a center for outdoor sports in Scotland; her godfather tells the director, Torquil, that Holly is “lost like a fallen star. The life’s out of her.”  We don’t see much of Torquil’s point of view, but he apparently makes it his personal mission to fix her, which in classic style takes the form of sneering and criticizing at every opportunity, and forcing her back into mountain climbing when she’s not ready.

Torquil is one of the most crazy-making heroes ever: he sets Holly up to be shocked and upset, then tells her she’s overreacting, and then tells her, “You will care, Holly… Even if I have to teach you myself.” In other words, you will care about what he thinks you should care about.  Somehow while he’s playing his little mind games they fall in love, and she is magically cured of wanting anything other than what Torquil thinks she should want.

But astonishingly enough, that was not my biggest problem with this book. It started off in an annoyingly sexist vein, but since I often read old romances, I’m used to running into characters who talk about women’s libbers and girl fridays. (Though “lady instructress” was new.) Then we were introduced to a minor character named Dan, aka the Golliwog:

Golliwog was an apt description for Dan. Another sturdy Scotsman but with curly black hair that stood out from his head. Even his beard threatened to curl. Dan’s eyes went heavenwards for an instant, revealing the whites of his eyes, completing the golliwog image.

I was still in culture shock from that when we got to the Hogmanay costume party, which Dan attended as “an African native,” with “blackened face and torso.” Yes, you read that right — this book has a character in blackface.  After that, the introduction of a “half-caste” girl named Affreka barely shook me.  The Great Britain of 1987 was certainly very different, to put it as politely as I can.

I sincerely tried to find something of worth in this story, and I did enjoy the sections about Holly’s photography, and her growing ambition to start a new career as a children’s photographer. (Which all goes by the wayside at the end, as far as I can tell.) A heroine who climbs mountains to take photographs is cool, even if she (understandably) makes a rather poor job of it her first time back, and I thought it interesting that, unlike most current romances, this passes the Bechdel Test. But when I wasn’t finding the book offensive, I was finding it baffling. It seemed to be written in some kind of narrative shorthand that I just didn’t get, and there are numerous subplots taking up space that the primary romance desperately needs. I don’t know what was really going on with Holly, I don’t know what was really going on with Torquil, I have no idea when or why they fell in love.  The casual attitude towards grammar didn’t help; it was often hard to tell what was an editing error and what was just the colloquial style.

Even without the offensive elements, this book would not score high with me; it failed as a romance as well, and I honestly can’t recommend it at all. F.

~Willaful

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