TBR Challenge – Back to the Classics

seventearsforapollo This month’s TBR challenge, reading one of the classics, had me scratching my head for a little bit. Did I want to reach for one of those books that could be considered part of the romance canon(to the degree we have one), or did I want to pick a classic trope or author? In the end, I decided on Seven Tears for Apollo. When we start talking about old school romantic suspense or gothics online, certain names tend to pop up. Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Barbara Michaels – all have their fans. However, Phyllis Whitney is one of those names that seems to be mentioned almost as an afterthought.

I’ve read a few Phyllis Whitney novels, all historicals, and I did enjoy them. However, I had yet to read one of her contemporaries and so I gave this one a whirl. Written in 1962, it captures a world that for 21st century readers feels like a curious blend of old and new.

The spineless heroine drove me completely nuts at times, but otherwise I enjoyed this meander through 1960s Greece and I’d probably give it a B-.

Our heroine, Dorcas Brandt, is a young widow and mother of a 4 year old girl and if you’re familiar with the term “gaslighting,” you’ll quickly recognize what has happened to poor Dorcas. In the early parts of the book, we learn that her late husband Gino was abusive to her and before his death, managed to convince her and those around her that she was mentally ill and basically incapable of taking care of herself and her daughter. Now that Gino is dead, Dorcas is living with Fernanda “Fern” Farrar, who was practically a foster mother to him. Fern is a flamboyant travel writer and she hatches a scheme to take Dorcas along with her to Greece to act as a secretary of sorts.

The trip to Greece is quite an adventure for Dorcas and she even finds herself starting to fall in love with Fern’s guide. However, she had been the victim of several break-ins following the death of Gino and strange things start happening to her in Greece that make her wonder if the threats have followed her there as well. Of course, given her history, Fern and others quickly and repeatedly pronounce her fears as mere hysteria. If Dorcas had had even a bit more backbone, I suspect readers would feel her frustration and root for her more. However, she makes one hysterical outburst and silly decision after another, and engages in behavior that seems almost designed to prove her naysayers correct.

In addition, the story contains all kinds of little twists that aren’t all that hidden, so many readers will guess what’s going on long before the characters. Even so, I found myself getting sucked into the story. The characters are over-the-top ridiculous, but in a campy and fun way, and I enjoyed the descriptions of postwar Greece. So, while Seven Tears for Apollo definitely has its problems, it’s not bad and I can see why Whitney had a following for both her contemporaries and her historicals.

– Lynn Spencer
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howtoscoreThis month I polished off two blog challenges – The Alphabet Challenge and Game’s On! both from the reading challenge on our Romance Potpourri forum here at AAR. Not the best read of the bunch but a book that definitely left me thinking was Robin Well’s How to Score. This is a light hearted romantic comedy about museum curator Sammi Mathews and FBI Special Agent turned life coach Chase Jones. When Chase’s brother witnesses a hit at a local pizzeria, Chase urges him to go into witness protection until after the trial. But his brother is a life coach and doesn’t want to lose his clients while hiding from the mob. Since the case looks to close quickly, Chase steps in for the few weeks his brother will be gone. Sammi is talking to a life coach because she has tendency to hurt the men she dates. An elbow to the eye here, dropping a shelf on them there – she’s not sure what has turned her into such a dangerous dating klutz but she sure can’t keep this up or the male population will be one big accident zone. After giving her some advice over the phone Chase decides to meet her in person. Surviving Sammi’s particular brand of tough love might not be easy, but could it be that she is the perfect girl for him, in spite of her tendency to leave him battered?

The story is cute and sweet, a completely easy and quick read. It has been sitting on my TBR pile awhile because I haven’t really been in the mood for a rom-com. But reading this was a total nostalgia trip for me. I first discovered Ms. Wells while on vacation in Branson. I read this while I was vacationing there again this year. Adding to the nostalgia factor was the fact that this is one of the books I purchased when Borders was going out of business. I have a ton of those books and it is always a bit sad to read them since they mark a time in my life where all my usual book shopping haunts were closing down right and left. I still have a few local bookstores but they tend not to stock mid-list authors. I will forever be grateful to Borders for doing so – and yeah, in spite of my love of my Kindle and the ease of shopping at Amazon, I still miss the old brick and mortar stores.

– Maggie Boyd
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tokissathiefFor the Days of the Week Challenge this month, I turned to Wednesday, and chose the following prompt:

Read a book that has in its title the word “Wednesday”, “Mercury”, “message”, “letter” “business”, “travel” or “thief” or any variation of these words, or a word you think might have a similar connotation

I chose an old Signet romance which has been digitally re-issued, To Kiss a Thief by Kate Moore. I can’t remember exactly why I bought it, other than at the time, I was glomming e-books and used copies of old, OOP historical romances. I’m pleased to report that I was very pleasantly surprised by the book. Rather than being set among the ballrooms and glittering world of the ton, much of the story takes place in war-torn Portugal, as the hero – the eponymous thief – and heroine travel across Europe, in order to gather information on the enemy and expose a traitor at home.

Margaret Somerley has embarked upon her first London season but has so far met with little notice or success, facts her mother bemoans both loudly and frequently. When she foolishly causes Margaret to become an object of ridicule, the family leaves London for a short stay in the country at the estate of the Earl of Haddon where, one evening, Margaret encounters a thief breaking into the room and stealing papers from Lord Haddon’s desk.

As he departs, the thief notices Margaret shrinking into the shadows and, unable to risk her giving the alarm, he forces her to leave with him. Although his intention had been to deposit her somewhere safely and hidden until he can get well away, the thief – who we’ve learned is named Drew – is unable to do so and has no alternative but to keep Margaret with him. But she cannot travel with him as Miss Somerley – so to protect her name and reputation as much as her person, Drew transforms her into Meg Summers, and tells her she is to pose as his mistress.

It’s a cute set-up for a story which has a considerable depth to it in terms of characterisation as well as an enjoyable adventure plot and slowly developing romance.

Margaret is determined to dislike and distrust Drew whom she realises is not only a thief, but a traitor, planning to sell military secrets to the French. But she can’t quite reconcile the man who could contemplate doing so with the man who teases and laughs with her, and who is at such pains to protect both her life and her name. Drew takes Margaret to Portugal with him, ostensibly so he can meet with the ring-leaders of the French spy network to whom he plans to sell the stolen information. Their journey is slow, frequently uncomfortable and always dangerous, as they are under the constantly watchful eyes of the two burly “escorts” thoughtfully provided by Drew’s contact, who are clearly ready to do away with them at the slightest provocation. But the reader is privy to a few things Margaret does not know, meaning that Drew’s motives are less clear – is he a traitor, a spy… or something else? And if he really isn’t a traitor – then who is? And why has he determined to undertake such a dangerous journey?

To Kiss a Thief is a quick and enjoyable read which I found pleasantly surprising in its setting. The characterisation of both Drew and Meg is strong and consistent, and I felt while reading that the author has deliberately not turned them into a “hero” who sets out to impress with his feats of derring-do, and his feisty lady; but has instead written a story in which two people are thrown together into an unusual situation and have to adapt and deal with it, surviving on their quick wits and natural intelligence.

This is a clean romance, so there is no on-screen sex, (well, not quite) but once again, it just shows what a skilful author can do with a touch or a look, to render a full-blown romp between the sheets unnecessary. B

Completely coincidentally, my other challenge read also takes place in war-torn Portugal. I chose Carla Kelly’s Marrying the Royal Marine because it features a May/December romance, which is one of the criteria for Saturday, which is associated with Saturn, the God of Time.

Ms Kelly is always to be relied upon for an engaging story featuring solid historical research, but this book really is something special. It’s the third in a trilogy featuring three sisters; Polly is the youngest, at eighteen-going-on-nineteen, and at the beginning of the book is travelling to Oporto to live with her sister, who is married to the chief surgeon at the hospital there. She suffers from the most appalling sea-sickness, and is cared for by the dashing Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Junot (a Scot, despite his French-sounding name), who is on a fact-finding mission for his superiors in England. As she recovers, they become friends, although Hugh is already well aware that he’s falling hard and fast for this plucky young woman who is almost twenty years his junior. But he thinks there’s no way a she could or should be interested in a man of his age – while of course she’s thinking that such a handsome, commanding man could never be interested in a poor, plain woman like her.

Hugh sees Polly into her sister’s care and then leaves, to continue his journey to Lisbon. Once he has left, Polly throws herself into her work at the hospital, helping the nuns who care for the many young women who were violated by French soldiers, and finding a sense of purpose. She details her experiences, many of which are emotionally draining, in a long letter to Hugh, which she knows she will never send.

Hugh returns to Oporto on the way back to England, determined not to see Polly because he knows it will hurt too much. But fate intervenes, and very soon, the pair of them are thrust into an unwelcome and dangerous situation from which it seems unlikely they will escape with their lives.

I can’t praise this book highly enough. The Napoleonic Wars are often mentioned in passing in novels set at this time, but here, the reader is plunged into the midst of the uncertainty and horrors of war as experienced in this particular corner of Europe. Ms Kelly doesn’t sugar-coat the horror, desperation and degradation of it and I was truly impressed at the manner in which she humanised the opposing forces, showing them as men doing their jobs rather than demonising them.

The romance is beautifully written and heart-felt, with the real sense of a deep connection between the protagonists. Hugh and Polly showing each other over and over how much they care for each other in ways both big and small. They are partners in every sense of the word – looking out for each other, saving each other, and even managing to laugh together despite the gravity of the situation in which they find themselves. Ms Kelly’s grasp of the history of the period is masterly, and she cleverly weaves a number of interesting historical facts into her story – and she does it all in under three hundred pages. I am in awe. A+.

– Caz Owens

6 thoughts on “TBR Challenge – Back to the Classics

  1. Lynn, I’m sadly lacking when it comes to Gothic romance — although I’ve read them here and there. I’m just not really familiar with classic writers, except for Victoria Holt whose works I read a long time ago. Seven Tears for Apollo sounds a bit campier than the Gothics I’ve read.

    I think I gave up on them because after a while I got tired of the formula — the brooding hero who’s usually the suspect and the heroine who believes he’s the culprit but falls for him anyway.

    I do have a few books by Dorothy Eden in my TBR (whose works I’ve never read) and may give them a change.

    • This book was definitely campier than some of the gothics I’ve read. I found it interesting because I could definitely see the influence of movies like “Gaslight” in the plot of it, but you’d have the be in the mood for campiness to like this one. While I enjoy Whitney, I think some of my favorite gothics are from Barbara Michaels. I loved some of hers such as Be Buried in the Rain or Ammie, Come Home

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