TBR Challenge Review: Conor’s Way by Laura Lee Guhrke

This book has been in my TBR since it was released as an ebook back in August. Okay, not that long, but it is a book I’ve been meaning to read and never gotten around to. Since this month’s theme is a book recommended by someone else, and since several someones have urged me to read this book, it seemed to fit. I know of at least one other TBR Challenge participant who read this book in February as well, so multiple reviews will be available.

Guhrke’s books are hit and miss with me; I loved And Then He Kissed Her, but couldn’t get into the other Girl Bachelor books. Wedding of the Season made me a litte crazy, but its sequel Scandal of the Year was really good and different. And I’ve been stuck about halfway through the third Abandoned at the the Altar book, Trouble at the Wedding, for about a month now. Hearing from others that this older Guhrke title was worth reading intrigued me enough that I bought it. It was originally published in 1996.

Conor’s Way is a historical romance set in America (yay!), in the South, in the aftermath of the Civil War. The historical South as a setting is often a problem for me; if it’s portrayed believably, I don’t like the people and have a hard time enjoying the book; if it’s romanticized, I get sidetracked by how that seems to trivialize the very real issues surrounding slavery and the economy built on its back. I have had trouble with pretty much every romance I’ve read in this period for that reason. This one struck just the right balance for me.

Olivia Maitland grew up on a plantation, and she’s now its owner and proprietor. Her parents and brothers have all died, casualties of the war or related phenomenon. Her best friend also died, which is why she has three daughters (her friend’s) to raise, even though she is single and has never even been kissed. She’s trying to run her plantation, Peachtree, without any help but the girls’, while resisting the efforts of the local tycoon/bully to persuade her to sell the land to him for his railroad expansion scheme.

What worked so well for me was the way Olivia thinks of the war and the end of the way of life she was born to. While she misses some aspects of life on a “beautiful and gracious plantation” where “she had been born and bred to play the piano and host garden parties,” she doesn’t wish for those days to return. She knows they can’t, and she wouldn’t want them to, because she has accepted that her way of life was unsupportable.

She could remember when all the slaves had departed in ’63. Only Nate had stayed on — dear, dependable Nate. She’d given him twenty acres of prime land for his own farm, but she knew he hadn’t stayed because of that. Twenty-one then, she had watched the other slaves go, and she had realized the truth she had been shielded from all her life — that slaves weren’t happy being slaves, that up-country white folks didn’t care what happened to the plantations, and that the beauty and grace of her childhood had been a false and fragile existence all along.

(Chapter 13)

In other romances I’ve read in this era, the heroine has come across to me either as spoiled and selfish, unable to see slavery as evil and wrong, or as an anachronistic activist for the rights of slaves and former slaves. Mostly I think this reflects my ambivalence about the actual South in this period. I have a hard time believing that people accepted slavery, and yet I know that they did. Intellectually I know how that has to have worked, and that some of those folks were in other respects good, loving people, but emotionally I can’t accept that, and so I rarely can accept them as “heroes” or “heroines.” No other romance writer has given me a character believably of her time and place and yet aware of how very wrong the “peculiar institution” was.

Part of that is Guhrke’s writing — I got really caught up in Olivia’s point of view (and in Conor’s; they were both very real to me). But the narrative timeline also contributes; Olivia in the “present” has come to peace with both the loss of her lifestyle and its essential wrongness, and having her flash back to it made it easier to believe, because in the book’s present she is living in a way that proves her sincerity. Perhaps most strongly, Olivia’s journey to this point has taken her expected lifestyle away in more ways than one; as somewhat of a social outcast, because of her embarrassing alcoholic father, she has a complex and compelling experience of loss that goes beyond that shared by other young women of her class.

Conor Branigan is a classic wounded romance hero. Olivia finds him beaten up and abandoned in the road; he also has older scars, inside and out, from his experiences in his native Ireland, including imprisonment and torture at the hands of the English. (The plight of the Irish and of American slaves are contrasted subtly here, because no actual former slaves appear as characters.) Of course he needs Olivia’s help to recover from his beating, and of course he then must return the favor by helping her with her work on the plantation. Their love feels inevitable (hey, it’s romance), as does his quick bonding with the three girls. The biggest obstacle is Conor’s determination not to love again — not only because he’s been hurt so badly, but because he genuinely doesn’t believe that he deserves happiness. Guhrke’s use of flashbacks to reveal Conor’s past and the reason for these feelings works really well; as a reader, I was committed to the idea of Olivia and Conor together, and only then did I come to understand his real reasons for resisting. Yet I always knew there was a reason, so I never felt the “wounded hero pity party” that has bothered me in many other romances.

I thought the story came together really well at the end. While some elements of the villainy plot felt overly familiar (cue melodrama bad guy come to steal our heroine’s land for the railroad!), there were twists I didn’t expect, so it stayed interesting. The resolution was no quick fix, either; I appreciated that, because it seemed respectful of the characters and the reader to give them time to work around to happiness.

The book isn’t perfect. The children had definite plot-moppet moments, and Conor’s occasional Irish dialect (“cup of tay”) was annoying. (I didn’t mind the occasional Gaelic word or phrase, but phonetic dialect coming and going can really bug me.) There was also an odd thread of religion running through the book that didn’t quite feel resolved for me. Conor is the answer to Olivia’s prayers, and she prays quite a bit in the book. Conor curses and insists that he has lost his faith, and I never got the feeling that he changed in that regard. But because Olivia loves him, it ceases to matter, seemingly, that they are fundamentally incompatible in terms of religion, which earlier scenes suggested is central to Olivia’s life and identity. (Not that this doesn’t happen in real life; it does, and it bugs me then, too.) But while I had some head-shaking moments over these minor issues, my overall experience of the book was quite good. I recommend it.


Edited to Add: Here are links to some other reviews published today. It’s the Conor’s Way bandwagon!

Quilter Phyl’s review

Nath and Leslie’s review

And of course, our Super Librarian Wendy’s review.

Edited again to add Lori’s tardy review at I Just Finished Reading.


Authors Behaving Well: Speaking Up and Standing Against Discrimination

We hear a lot about “authors behaving badly” on the internet. We get blog posts on the subject, with links and screen shots illustrating that some authors can’t handle criticism, think it’s their job to tell readers how to read or how to review, or are willing to use tactics like intimidation, threats, and manipulation of social media tools to try to suppress certain responses to their work or to their behavior. I have never blogged about one of those incidents, although I appreciate those who do and have commented and spread links when I think more people need to be made aware of what’s happened.

Today, I want to talk about the opposite phenomenon: authors behaving well. There are lots of examples I could cite: Brenda Novak’s annual auction to raise funds for juvenile diabetes research, the various literacy efforts supported by the Nora Roberts Foundation (not to mention their support for the efforts to save the black-footed ferret!), or even the many authors who can respond in a classy way to snarky comments in a review of their book. (My favorite is still Carla Cassidy’s response to the Smart Bitches’ review of Pregnesia, which gave rise to blog posts like this one from Maree Anderson). There are many wonderful people writing genre fiction, which is mostly what I read, and I periodically need to remind myself of that.

The impetus for this post is the response of certain authors when they learned that Romance Writers Ink, the Tulsa-based chapter of the Romance Writers of America, has decided this year to exclude all books featuring same-sex couples from their annual More Than Magic romance writing contest. Yes, the rules specifically state, “Note: MTM will no longer accept same-sex entries in any category.”

You don’t have to have been around the world of romance publishing long to know that the genre and RWA, its professional authors association, have had some growing pains regarding the place of same-sex romance, mirroring the growing pains in our society. RWA now has a chapter for writers of GLBT fiction, the Rainbow Romance Writers, and these works can be entered in RWA’s national contests under whatever category they fit (categories being mostly based on length and setting).

Apparently an RWA board ruling stated that it was up to individual chapters how to categorize GLBT fiction in their own contests — which I would take to mean that some contests would have separate categories for GLBT, which some authors and judges prefer, while others would include them in the category they otherwise fit, as per the RITA and the Golden Heart. (This understanding is mine, based on my reading of what’s out there on this subject, particularly this blog post by Heidi Cullinan, president of Rainbow Romance Writers.) I sincerely hope that RWA did not mean to suggest that it was acceptable for chapter contests to exclude GLBT books altogether, but that’s what RWInk has done, because its members were “uncomfortable” accepting these entries. (This from an email received by Kari Gregg in response to her query about the rules.) [ETA: I have heard that the official RWA stance may be that individual chapters can make rules like this, but a lot of members aren’t happy with that, so the policy is going to get some discussion and clarification in March.]

A number of authors and bloggers are standing up and spreading the word about this issue, expressing outrage and dismay over both the choice made for the More Than Magic contest and the message it sends, as well as the message sent if RWA doesn’t take a stand against it. Author Isobel Carr is tweeting about it, and about her attempts to raise the issue with the RWA board. Author Courtney Milan has an excellent blog post urging a boycott of the contest, “Don’t enter More than Magic,” and Carolyn Jewel has publicly posted her very articulate letter to the RWA board on this issue.

Needless to say, I agree with all these fine women. Discrimination is wrong, and hanging a blanket “no gays” sign on your contest is no different from “no Blacks” or “no women” — highly ironic in a genre that is routinely underrated because it is a “women’s” genre. And while I’m mad as hell about this, I have to say that I’m celebrating the response. Because knowing that I’m not alone in thinking this is wrong, and reading the very passionate, powerful responses of authors whose work I respect, feels awfully good. Thanks, ladies.

That Grocery Shopping Story

It seems several times a month, I get into an online conversation (sometimes on Facebook, much more often on Twitter), where I want to relate this story. But it’s too long for Twitter, and the main character (my youngest child) sure doesn’t want to have his Facebook friends see it. So I’m writing here, and that way I can link to it. Often.

This happened in Central Indiana in 1996; my youngest was 3, and my next youngest was about 5. I picked them up from daycare after work and headed to Wal-Mart, where we did a lot of our grocery shopping back then. We had a few items in the cart, and next on the list was breakfast cereal. We turned into the correct aisle, and there at the other end was another mom with her child, roughly in the same age bracket as my two. Only hers was stretched out full-length on the floor, shrieking and kicking and crying. She was standing over him, trying to get him to stop, failing miserably and getting angry. My two looked shocked; I stopped the cart at a distance and had a moment to pat myself on the back that my two were being so good and not making a scene. Ha!

(I should probably explain here that I have two older children, so the younger ones have been exposed to films, games and television shows beyond their age level and understanding. Also, that it’s a favorite conversational game in our family to insert familiar lines of dialog when someone says something reminiscent of a favorite film. Got that?)

So the out-of-patience mother leans over her screaming son and shouts, “If you don’t stop that, I’m going to give you a spanking!” At which point my cherub sings out, in a faultless English accent, “A spanking! A spanking! And after the spanking, the oral sex!”

I have never moved with a grocery cart so fast in my life. I whipped around the corner and down two aisles over, with one child laughing maniacally while the other shouted, “Mommy, Mommy, we didn’t get any cereal! We need cereal!” “No, no, we don’t really need cereal, we weren’t going to get any cereal,” I insisted, trying to get far enough away that no one could connect my kid to the voice they’d almost certainly heard coming from the other direction. I took another corner and almost crashed into a cart coming the other way — the cart being in use by the wife of the president of the college where my husband and I both worked. Wow.

Fortunately, this was just as bad for her as for me; her grocery cart held nothing but large bottles of gin and vodka, and after a quick, awkward acknowledgement, we went our separate ways. We never spoke of it.

So that’s the story. You can find the relevant moment in Monty Python and the Holy Grail at the 5:20 mark here.

Review: The Bro-Magnet by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

Like many others, I passed on this book at first because the cover and the title put me off. But when Jane at Dear author read it and recommended it, I decided to give it a try. Glad I did, because it was an enjoyable read.

Unusually for a hetero romance, the book is in first person POV from the male character. I had no trouble getting into that, which surprised me a little. I think it was because the tone was very much story-telling; Johnny wanted to relate incidents that explained how he overcame being “a disappointment to women.”

It also takes a little while to figure out who the female love interest will be; I know a lot of readers want the two main characters in a romance to meet quite early in the book, but about a third of the book passed before Helen was introduced. I thought it was worth the wait, because the rest of the book revolves around Johnny changing, or pretending to change, in order to make romantic progress with Helen, and it was good to have a strong sense of who he was before he started trying to be different. Plus the early incidents are funny — the whole book is.

It’s really rare for me to find a comic romance that works so well (it helps that I’m a sports fan, although not of the Mets or the Jets, much). This book reminded me of a screwball comedy from the late 30s or 40s — in fact, I can see Katharine Hepburn playing Helen. Events happen, but the focus is all on how the characters negotiate those (hilariously) in order to end up together, even resolving the misunderstanding that turns out to be ridiculous. The reader sees it coming a mile away, which in first person POV is a neat accomplishment. There’s no suspense plot, there are no evil exes trying to derail the relationship. On the contrary, everyone in the book seems to want these two people to get together. That’s right: no villain. There are some stereotyped stock characters, but I felt that those were mostly used to good effect, as in those screwball comic films.

This is the kind of contemporary romance I frequently see readers asking for — fun, light-hearted, without external conflicts that detract from the focus on the developing romance. It is not sexually explicit; in fact, the description of Johnny and Helen’s first time making love is one of my favorites in recent reading, and it only refers to body parts as “body parts.” Yet it’s still clear that they used a condom, which I really appreciate in a contemporary story.

A couple of things didn’t work for me. One was the portrayal of Johnny’s lesbian best friend, Sam; she just didn’t ring true, and sometimes it felt like her sexual orientation was being exploited for a cute plot point or funny moment that demeaned her a bit. I felt that way occasionally about many of the secondary female characters — there was a nasty edge to them that I didn’t sense in the male characters. The ending also didn’t work for me a hundred percent; I won’t spoil it, but I felt that Johnny’s grand gesture might not have been appreciated by the other people present.

Overall, though, this was a very enjoyable book, and just what I needed — it made me smile, and laugh, and feel warm and fuzzy, without any angst. I think readers who like Jill Shalvis or Jennifer Crusie would enjoy this book. WIN

Unfortunately I can’t recommend the other book I tried by this author, The Thin Pink Line. It’s about a woman who thinks she might be pregnant, tells her boyfriend, and then when she soon finds out that she was mistaken, decides to fake being pregnant until she can get that way for real. (The line in the title is the one on a positive pregnancy test, which she fakes with a pink marker.) I read through the first three months (the book is divided in to sections by trimester of the non-existent pregnancy), and I could not go further. If the main character succeeded in actually getting pregnant, I would be disgusted; on the other hand, I can’t imagine that I would enjoy reading about her getting what I felt she deserved for this stunt, especially not in first-person POV. Some readers might enjoy the chick-lit tone and funny/awkward situations in this book, but the underlying premise kept me from being one of them. DNF