Back in law school, I used to buy boxes of old category romances at library sales, and I still have many of these hanging around. When I want to try out some 80s/90s romances, these can be great fun. And while we love many of the historicals coming out today, there are some treasures to be found among the old school books as well. This time around, I dug into my category romance stash while Caz tried a vintage trad. Regency. Our results were mixed, but it was a fun prompt to explore.
Handful of Sky by Tory Cates
I always look forward to the vintage or ‘old school’ romance prompt. I usually pick up a Betty Neels or a nineties historical, but this time around, I decided to switch it up. I’m not sure how I originally came to own this 1982 rodeo romance, but Handful of Sky by Tory Cates ended up being a nice surprise. When it comes to rodeo, I’m generally rooting for the animals, but Cates made me care about the people and get invested in the leads’ romance, so hats off to her for this one.
Shallie grew up in the rodeo world, and her big dream is to establish herself in the business. Her father and uncle were champion riders, and she now works with her uncle in the family business, contracting to supply local rodeos all over the west. It’s the early eighties and rodeo is clearly a pretty macho culture, so Shallie faces an uphill struggle to be taken seriously as a businesswoman. She perseveres by being calm and competent, without curl-tossing or being ‘feisty’, so I was rather fond of her from the beginning.
Shallie’s world turns upside down when she encounters a mysterious man at a small local rodeo. This rider is clearly head and shoulders above the rest in terms of skill, and eventually Shallie figures out that he is the legendary Hunt McIver. Following injuries and a series of disappointments on the circuit, Hunt is now riding incognito in small events to see if he can get his skills back.
It turns out that Hunt is the grandson of one of the big legends of rodeo. His wealthy grandfather runs one of the most prominent rodeo supply and promoting companies in the business. By comparison, Shallie and her uncle struggle to get by. When a request comes in for them to help Hunt’s grandfather fill a contract, it seems like a big break. And it is – but Hunt also wants to see Shallie again.
At first I was a bit wary because I was afraid Hunt would be a stereotypical overbearing hero. To my happy surprise, he wasn’t. He has his moments, but he listens to Shallie and he is just vulnerable enough that he generally comes across as strong without being domineering.
Since this is a Silhouette from way back in the day, the writing will probably feel a little dated to modern readers, but it’s not unbearably clunky by any means. And while eighties fashions, mustaches and chest hair abound, the book has far fewer cringeworthy old-school attitudes than others of this period I’ve read. There is some casual sexism thrown in there, but given the heroine’s personality, it very often gets countered and soundly disapproved of by the primary characters.
There are a few too many coincidences moving the plot forward, and the romance between Hunt and Shallie is plagued by a bit too much insecurity and wild jumps to conclusions on Shallie’s part, but overall I enjoyed the story. And since it’s rodeo, there’s a special horse thrown in there, of course. I probably wouldn’t read a steady diet of books like this, but I did enjoy this one.
Note: The copy I read of Handful of Sky was the original Silhouette Intimate Moments edition. The book has since been re-released as an ebook and it is my understanding that the text has been updated. This review covers the original only, as I have not read the current edition.
Grade: B Sensuality: Warm
– Lynn Spencer
Buy at Amazon, or your local independent retailer
Plain Jane by M.C. Beaton
It was a very sobering thought to realise that most of the books I own that could be considered “vintage” – and thus contendenters for my read for that prompt for the July TBR Challenge – were written and published well within my lifetime. I ended up going with Plain Jane, book two in The House for the Season series by M.C. Beaton, written under her pen-name of Marion Chesney and originally published in 1986.
Beaton wrote a lot of Traditional Regencies under the Chesney pseudonym, and this series is unusual in that the recurring characters are the servants who live and work in the epomymous house, and because we get to spend time with them as well as with the above-stairs characters, who change from book to book.
67 Clarges Street in Mayfair is a most desirable address, but thanks to a series of misfortunes (the previous owner, a duke, killed himself there, the subsequent tenant lost all his money, the next lost their daughter) the place has a reputation for bad luck and has proven very difficult to let. The small group of servants who reside there do their best to keep the house in order in very trying circumstances; the current Duke of Pelham delegates all matters relating to the house to his agent Jonas Palmer, a liar, thief and bully who pays them a pittance because he knows that none of them can find other positions without a character (written reference), and he isn’t about to provide them. A good tenant for the house is their only hope of earning a decent wage and possibly getting such a reference – but they know full well that the chances of a tenant being found are slim.
Jane Hart first laid eyes on the handsome Lord Tregarthan when she was just ten and has dreamed of him ever since. Eight years later, he’s still her ideal, but she has never really believed she’d ever see him again – until her mother announces she’s taken a house for the season in London in order to bring out Jane’s beautiful older sister, Euphemia. It’s a complete surprise; Mrs. Hart is a penny-pincher of the first order, but a friend tells her of a house in a prime location that can be had very cheaply, and it’s too good a thing to pass up. She starts planning Euphemia’s wardrobe, where they will go, who they will meet… and doesn’t intend to even take Jane until her normally quiet and unobtrusive husband puts his foot down and insists that Jane goes, too. Mrs. Hart isn’t pleased, but reasons that as Jane will manage with Euphemia’s hand-me-downs (as she always does), it won’t merit too much extra expense – and Euphemia, vain, selfish and often spiteful, likes the idea of having her much plainer sister with her as it will show off her own loveliness to greater advantage.
Well, of course, the staff at Clarges Street take to Jane, liking her sweet nature, sunny disposition and lack of artifice, and the French lady’s maid works wonders making over Euphemia’s old gowns, dressing Jane’s hair and teaching her many of the things a well-bred young lady sould know, such as how to curtsey, use a fan and flirt a little. When Jane meets Lord Tregarthan at last, she’s a little disappointed – he seems to be all good looks and no substance – but even so, she’s still very much smitten. She’s delighted when he asks her to go driving with him the next day, and moreso when he takes her seriously when she expresses her interest in the unexplained death of Clara Vere-Braxton, the daughter of a previous tenant who was found dead in Green Park, and suggests that they should look into it. Tregarthan, of course, tells himself that his interest in Jane is not romantic, but can’t help being drawn to her good-humour, warmth and sense of adventure.
The story moves quickly, with Jane’s romance with Tregarthan being a mix of Ugly Duckling, Cinderella, and murder-mystery, and there’s a romance or two brewing below stairs, too. The trouble is that it’s a lot for such a small page count (under 200 pages) so it all feels rather superficial. I was far more interested in the servants’ stories than in the main romance to be honest – not only is it a refreshing change for these characters to have such prominent roles, they also feel more rounded and real, possibly because there is clearly more to be said about them. I liked that they’re so clearly a family unit, and that they look out for each other, despite their faults and disagreements – they deserve a decent master who will treat them well and I hope that they eventually get one! There’s no question the author knows her stuff when it comes to the period she’s writing about, whether talking about the weather or the lives of the servants or the workings of high society, and there’s plenty of wry humour and sharp observation. I’ll also point out – as Caroline did in her review of book one, The Miser of Mayfair – that there’s something that modern readers might not be happy with; in this case, it’s the use of the word “gypsy” in descriptions. Jane has “tough, coarse, gypsy hair”, she’s told later that she looks like a “gypsy princess” for example. There’s a whole argument around to revise or not to revise older books; I’m not going there, and I just wanted to flag this up.
In the end, Plain Jane was a quick, fun read, but it’s a comedy of manners more than a romance. I enjoyed it, but it lacks the kind of depth and romantic development I generally look for these days.
Grade: C+ Sensuality: Kisses
– Caz Owens
I haven’t been reading much romance lately (for some reason, non-fiction has appealed to me more lately), but did pick up an older romance over the weekend. I read Laura Kinsale’s Uncertain Magic (one of two unread books by her in my TBR), which I had been saving for a rainy day. I had my ups and downs with it. I’ve always appreciated how this author explores themes and isn’t afraid to do something different. Her writing is for me mesmerizing no matter what she writes about. Whereas most new romance authors (as in the last five or more years) leave me cold, Kinsale can still sweep me away. I’m not sure she pulled off the mixing of fantasy (fae coupled with telepathy in this case) with historical romance. Nevertheless, it had enough lovely, intimate moments here and there, such as when the hero and heroine hold hands, to engage me despite some of my frustration with it.
I listened to the audiobook of that a few years back; the narration by Nicholas Boulton is simply wonderful and probably helped smooth over some of the cracks in the storytelling. But I agree, one of the great things about LK was that she wasn’t afraid to try something different and explore themes that weren’t always comfortable ones. I think she’d probably have to self-publish today.
For “vintage” I decided to go more with the idea of a book that is the quintessential example of the style of an author. In this case I had a vintage Nora Roberts’ book, Midnight Bayou, that I hadn’t yet read. And since I owned in on audio, I dove in. It was definitely Nora all the way: romance, mystery, paranormal doings, and the old south setting. In Nora Roberts’ style the mystery overshadows the romance. I gave both the book and the narration, by James Daniels and a few chapters by Sandra Burr, a B grade.
That’s a good way of looking at it. One of the things I really like about this challenge is that there’s no pressure to take the prompts a certain way, or even to use them at all.
I was determined not to miss this month’s challenge so I started early, LOL. I also reached for a traditional Regency, The Scholar’s Daughter by April Kihlstrom. This was originally published in 1989 by Signet. It was a pleasant read, but the plot was a little bit all over the place, like she couldn’t decide which trope really focus on (marriage of convenience v forced proximity v matchmaking family members v Big Mis). It was quite refreshing to read, because there was only one titled character in site (the hero’s great aunt), and the “big city” action took place in Bath, as opposed to London. For those longing for non-titled characters, I’d definitely suggest searching out the old Signet and Zebra regencies! :)
I’ve read some of Marion Chesney’s regencies and they tend to be a bit on the wacky side. I’ve reviewed The Savage Marquess in detail and mostly I remember it falling off a high cliff like a lead balloon. Having sampled her Agatha Raisin series and come away with similiar wariness, I think this author just isn’t for me.
I’ve listened to a couple of her books in audio – they definitely benefited from having good narrators, but the stories themselves were nothing to write home about, tbh. I can’t say I’ll be rushing to read her again.
Your choice sounds interesting – if a bit disjointed!
I agree that Chesney/Beaton is up and down. I liked The Miser of Mayfair enough to go out of my way to write it up, but Plain Jane (which if I recall is #2 in that series?) was a flop for me as well as Caz. It especially is frustrating how each Season, the tenants make a great match, but the author has to somehow wipe that out so the staff can start of desperate in the next.
However, I love that The House for the Season has the long-running belowstairs characters and their love stories. That was unprecedented for me when I first read them – it was dukes and wealthy gentlemen and very little else. It’s so refreshing when you get to the end of the series and see love for butlers and maids.
The inclusion of the servants and their stories is still unusual, 40 years later! With the popularity of shows like Downton Abbey, you’d think someone would have tapped into that side of it in HR, but nope, it’s still wall-to-wall dukes…
I haven’t read Beaton Chesney in a while but I remember enjoying her “Poor Relations” series a lot.
Ditto, but her The Six Sisters series!
I’m pretty sure I read and loved the House for a Season series but I definitely remember reading and loving The Six Sisters!