My Love-Hate Relationship with Books

neels There are certain books with which I have a bit of a love-hate relationship. Perhaps love-unease might be a better way to describe it, because I’m not sure my feelings ever quite fall to the level of hate. My love-hate books tend to be those which are unabashedly retro in their outlook, so I suspect my unease comes more from who I am rather than from the books all by themselves. I don’t speak here of the rape and/or abuse romances of old that I’ve discussed, but of some of the books I like that really are throwbacks to a very old-fashioned view of relationships.

For example, I’ll willingly confess to my Harlequin Presents habit. However, as a rather independent professional woman, I have to admit to a certain amount of discomfort with the whole “alpha billionaire sweeps dainty heroine off her feet and into a life of luxury” fantasy. Though there are definitely exceptions, the heroes in this line tend to be quite domineering, the settings exotic, the heroines delicate and fluttery. The plotting features over the top drama (think secret babies, forced marriages, dramatic business takeovers, amnesiac pregnant mistresses – well, you get it), and the dynamic between hero and heroine has a definite retro feel. And that’s not even getting into the bizarre plot acrobatics sometimes required to ensure that most of these heroines hold on to their virginity so that the hero can be swept away by magic virgin sex and they’ll live happily ever after.

The books where the hero feels the need to “possess” the heroine fit quite well into the HP line as do heroines who have led uncommonly sheltered lives. Indeed, many HP heroines seem to have pasts similar to heroines of novels from my grandmother’s day. Nowadays, this line doesn’t have too many rape/forced seduction scenarios though they do still crop up occasionally(The Innocent’s Surrender, I’m looking at you…) However, the men still play the dominant role in most of these relationships and the women will almost always be giving up whatever career they had(why be a secretary when you can marry the billionaire?) in order to follow him. It’s a very retro setup.

On a less steamy level, Betty Neels novels are very different than Presents in many ways but I have this same love-hate relationship with them. Her settings charm me and even though her heroines seem oh so downtrodden, few of them are TSTL. In fact, most of her heroines have good sense and a certain appeal about them. They are some of the most sensible nurses you will ever meet. The superpowerful Dutch doctors who dominate her lineup of heroes are way over the top, but I’ve still lapped up several tales of cold, wealthy Dutch docs who decided marrying the good, efficient nurse beat being wed to the job.

Though this reader’s feelings are much stronger than mine, this blog piece well sums up why I sometimes feel a little uncomfortable in Betty Neel’s world. Sometimes I just can’t take the meek heroines or the uncaring, oblivious hero who is far too dedicated to his medical work to notice the heroine until the very last minute. And yet…

I always go back. This time around, it was a Betty Neels blog that pulled me back because even as it cracks me up, these ladies have made me resdiscover why I loved these books so much. Maybe it’s fantastic food descriptions (clotted cream, cakes, mmm….), the exceedingly unusual(to American ears) Dutch doctor names or the gentle, old-fashioned storytelling, but something just keeps pulling me back in. I may laugh at how completely out of touch with modern reality the stories are. As I’ve seen mentioned on several blogs, Betty Neels was writing into the 21st century, but you’d never know it by the 1940s lifestyles of her characters. However, a visit to retro-land is just part of the charm that I know I’m in for when I pick up one of these books (and the food – I’m always paying attention to the food).

One reason I love Betty Neels is that she seems to have genuine affection for her main characters. The evil tramps who try to ensnare the hero may wind up married to vulgar tycoons from the Americas (dens of iniquity in these books and apparently a vile fate), but the hero and heroine are generally spoken of kindly. The heroine may be plain, but she’ll also be efficient and sensible and – the ultimate fantasy here – these qualities will be elevated and adored rather than taken for granted. And the hero may be cold sometimes, but we will be assured that his heart is in the right place and he’ll always manage to protect and rescue the heroine. There’s a lot of melodrama out there and I’d never want to live like a Neels heroine, but as with Presents, Neels’ world has very definite, recognizable rules and there’s something very comfortable and familiar about stepping into that framework. And sometimes comfortable and familiar is exactly what I’m looking for.

So, who else out here has a love-hate relationship with their books? Which books?

-Lynn Spencer

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23 Responses to My Love-Hate Relationship with Books

  1. Pat says:

    I have a box under a bed with every Betty Neels book ever written in it. Everything you wrote is true, but so often I find myself searching out a Neels favorite. It is a time and place removed from the here and now but I can’t give it up totally.

  2. Magdalen says:

    Pat — You have to go to The Uncrushable Jersey Dress — the Bettys there (they have real names, but it’s easier at first to think of them all as Bettys) are smart, funny women who can love Betty Neels without losing a certain acerbic quality. Heck, I find myself defending Betty Neels on subjects like turban hats in the 70s. (If I could just find that one photo of Princess Anne in a “fetching silk turban hat,” I’m sure I could completely rehabilitate Betty Neels on this point. I accept, however, that I can never rehabilitate turban hats — that’s truly a lost cause.)

    Lynn — I’ve been thinking about the question of why I love Betty Neels’ books. I’m going to have to blog post about it, and I still don’t entirely know what I want to say.

    But books I love and hate simultaneously? I would have to say Julia Quinn’s books. She’s a smart author, so why not put a little more effort into making her books NOT seem like they’re populated by Americans from the 21st century? Still, the plots are fun and her characters, while wildly anachronistic, are pleasant people to hang out with.

  3. Sandy AAR says:

    Jayne Ann Krentz contemps from the early to mid 90s. She told what was essentially the same story featuring essentially the same characters over and over, but I LIKE that story and I LIKE those characters. I find them calming.

  4. Maria says:

    The McKenzie series by Linda Howard. I love the stories, the heroes(THE HEROES!!), the writing….but WHY are ALL the heroines virgins? 30 year old virgins? In the 21 century, please. I makes me wonder if it is something wrong with them…

    And most contemporaries. Some times I want to scream :NOOOO 20 year olds DON´T think that way, we don´t talk that way. and we most definitely DON´T celebrate or DRESS that way!. I mean Eve DAllas form the IN DEATH series have a more normal social life that most contemporaries heroines.

  5. Christine says:

    I agree with Sandy, I really love the earlier Jayne Ann Krentz novels. Talk about a comfort read. I always enjoy how the heros actually LIKE the heroines and their good (but not always “super exciting”) qualities.

    Years ago as an early or maybe “pre” teen I would snitch some of my older sister’s Silhouette books. I always enjoyed the Stephanie James books because for the same reason. I never found out until long after liking the Jayne Ann Krentz books they were the same author.

  6. Adele Ashworth says:

    You know, I wonder about this, too. I have a weird glomming mechanism that automatically turns on whenever I’m in the HP section of the bookstore. I love/hate them. They, in general, go against everything I am as a modern woman, many of the plotlines have me rolling my eyes, and yet they beckon me like a gooey chocolate donut — empty calories I MUST have. Lots of them are very, very well written, the characters well developed for as short as they are, but I sometimes yell at the women for being so obtuse, and the men for being such jackasses. And yet I buy.

    I have a theory.

    I wonder if there is some teeny-tiny, intrinsic part of us women that, through some evolutionary discipline (or from God — I won’t take sides ;) — that automatically finds some deep, emotional comfort in the “caveman” scenario, where the men who protect us go out and hunt each day and come back to the campfire where we’ve been gathering and cooking the veggies, suckling the babies, and they bring home the deer, skin it, and curl up to protect us at night. I’m not saying I’d want to live that way (shower, car, and career anyone?) but that there is/was something intrinsically comforting in the loving protector/provider. And although we’ve outgrown, developed, evolved, adjusted, etc., it’s still nice to romanticize that ideal. Maybe it’s a natural thing with us women? Just like it’s natural to love gooey chocolate donuts?

  7. Gail says:

    All Diana Palmer books. All the men are almost cruel to the fragile little virgin heroines (who while they have TV’s and go to movies know nothing about sex) but I have all her books and whenever I’m in a reading slump I pull out one of those biscuit loving Hart brothers. My Jayne Ann Krentz books sit right there on the shelf beside her:)

  8. keira says:

    We always love to have you visit Betty Lynn and Pat should most certainly come on over (to the dark Side?). Betty Neels is giving us the time of our lives so we think of her fondly.

    And Betty Magdalen should give up the ghost where turbans are concerned because that’s one head-gear I have no love/hate with…

  9. xina says:

    I don’t hate these books, but wouldn’t want a steady diet of them either. When I read them, I switch to another reading mode. Reading the story and not comparing today’s ideas to the ones in the book. These are the books where men were “manly men” and women were, well…arm candy. :) Still, these books have a place in my reading. Once in a great while, I pick one up and lose myself in it. I’m thinking…early Sandra Brown, very early Linda Howard, those early Iris Johansen books. All the men were controlling and the women, for the most part let them drive the bus. Always. :)

  10. Tumperkin says:

    My guilty pleasure (rather than love-hate relationship) is Lynne Graham. All her books are basically the same (and sadly, the more recent ones aren’t nearly as good as the golden 1995-2003 period).

  11. Deb says:

    I, too, have every Betty Neels book ever printed. Let me tell you, they are hard to find because a lot of people keep them. I did like her heroines that were beautiful and were “built” with beautiful proportions. (My kind of heroine!) It did sometimes bother me that the ending to the love story was maybe a max of 2 pages.
    I also like Essie Summers books, but I am not going to pay $145 for one of her books.

  12. willaful says:

    I have pretty much made peace with my love of HPs, but my weird addiction to Diana Palmer (which I previously have likened to an addiction to cheap nasty-tasting chocolate from the Dollar Store) still bugs me. The books are so bad, on just about every level I can think of. Occasionally I come across one that’s decent, and that’s always a nice surprise, but the fact that I howl and gnash my teeth and bewilder my husband practically every time I read a Palmer book is just… well, nuts.

  13. carol palmer says:

    I cannot resist Margaret Way and Helen Biachin I keep checking for there upcoming books every month

  14. Kindra Viker says:

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  15. Susan says:

    While the Harlequin Presents books are a bit “old fashioned” in many respects, I still tend to devour them if the story appeals to me. I also enjoy the Desire books, and a bunch of the Blaze versions have also drifted into my keep pile. The Super Romance ones by Jessica Bird were something I tripped over, but they were some of the most enjoyable books I’ve picked up in the genre.

    For me, it’s more than the story though as it’s vital that I like the characters. Period. End of story quite literally. The last few In Death books have had some serious storyline issues, but I still grab each one up as it’s released so I can see what goes on with Eve and Roarke (and their friends if Nora has bothered to include them in any real way). Same with Laurell Hamilton’s Anita Blake books, and I haven’t read a good one in quite awhile. The scenarios in the Present line can be quite out there, but they’ve found their niche, and a lot of us loyal readers will be back every month.

    That reminds me, I need to add the February releases to my queue at the library. ;-)

  16. keira says:

    Deb! You love Essie Summers too?! I thought I was the only one to make the connection between the two authors. I just love her but have to pick her books up at Goodwill on the off chance that some old lady died and her stash went to the thrift store.

    • Deb says:

      keira: Deb! You love Essie Summers too?! I just love her but have to pick her books up at Goodwill on the off chance that some old lady died and her stash went to the thrift store.

      Hahaha! They are extremely hard to find and they go for BIG BUCKS on the ‘Net. Yeah! Another Essie fan!

  17. Sandy C. says:

    I’m glad other people mentioned Diana Palmer; I’m so happy I’m not alone! So many of her heroes need to be in some kind of sex therapy, don’t they? ;) Also, I confess to having quite a collection of Charlotte Lamb HPs, most of them published in the early 80s. The heroes were cruel, but in many instances, the heroines gave as good as they got. And yes, I still read Harlequin Presents, even though I find a keeper only once or twice a year now! They’re comforting in their predictability, what can I say?

  18. Loreta Dench says:

    Hi just stumbled your blog and been browsing around some of your entries and just wondering why you chose a WordPress blog dont you find it difficult to do anything with? Been thinking about starting one.

  19. Ann Stephens says:

    Adele Ashworth: “I wonder if there is some teeny-tiny, intrinsic part of us women that, through some evolutionary discipline (or from God — I won’t take sides ;) — that automatically finds some deep, emotional comfort in the “caveman” scenario, where the men who protect us go out and hunt each day and come back to the campfire where we’ve been gathering and cooking the veggies, suckling the babies, and they bring home the deer, skin it, and curl up to protect us at night.”

    I think Adele has a good point. Really, who wants to give up hot showers for a caveman, but any more we are responsible to protect and care for ourselves and our loved ones. It *is* nice to take comfort in the idea of a man willing to look after us, for a change.

  20. Sami says:

    I love/hate HP author Miranda Lee. Her books are unashamedly scandalous and her sex scenes delved into the land of erotic romance before it was a sub genre. Despite the often ridiculous plot gymnastics and overbearing heroes and the contrived sexual situations, I appreciate that her heroines usually do have sexual pasts that they’re not ashamed of and the heroes are rough around the edges (billionaire bastards for sure, but there’s a street brawler quality to them). I still enjoy them in that ‘guilty pleasure’ way even though she does tend to retell the same story over and over.

  21. Joyce Mitchell says:

    I have collected almost all of the books by Essie Summers, Robyn Donald and Dixie Browning. I even have a couple of Avalon books that Dixie Browning wrote under the name Zoe Dozier. About once a year I get them out & skim through them once again. I donated all my Diana Palmer books (I had a huge stash) to the public library after realizing that I didn’t really enjoy rereading them anymore.

  22. rosaetta says:

    I read lots Of HP’s does anyone recall Anne Mather Anne Hampson and Margery Hilton? They did lots of alpha romances but made them work. I read lots of Sandra Brown and Linda Howard before they did suspense. They could’ve written plenty of Hp’s too. I like Betty Neels and get a kick out of Palmer books too. I also like Intrigues and Harlequin temptations.

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