Yes, yes, there was a word-count limit to the RITA® Reader Challenge reviews, but sometimes they’re so funny I have to include the whole thing. Behold, K. Smith’s review of Kaki Warner’s Open Country.
I’m not a very discriminating reader. I average 6 romances a week, and my reaction to pretty much all of them is ‘Lovely. Next?’ But I adore the reviews on this site, which have led me to a great many fantastic authors, so I shall try to be a bit more helpful.
Kaki Warner’s Open Country starts off in 1871 in Georgia. Our Heroine Molly has come to see her sister. The sister’s weak, abusive husband has kept her from sending for Molly, and now the sister is dying. Before she does, she begs Molly to take her children (fruit of a previous union with a more satisfactory sperm donor). This features such charmingly underwritten prose as:
“Keep babies…safe. Promise me…Sister.”
Weeping in despair, Molly nodded. “I promise.”
Now I love melodrama, and I’m not going to get started on the fabulous history of romance’s overworked ellipsis, but I am not a fan of children. To clarify: real, actual children are often delightful, but first off I don’t find them conducive to romance, and secondly they never seem to retain any dimension after being translated to fiction. I don’t know if RedHeadedGirl would consider these plot moppets; they aren’t the most absolutely useless children I’ve encountered in a romance novel (how’s that for a ringing endorsement?). The younger girl is sticky and precious and yells a lot, and the older boy is surly as a result of having witnessed a murder, so it’s not like they have absolutely no characters at all. I’d say they exist largely to forward the plot, but that might be giving them too much credit. The plot is pretty…well it’s a romance novel, I don’t read these things for the plot, I read them for the romance, and the comfort of having everything unfold predictably toward an undeservedly happy ending. The back blurb thingie covers the plot, such as it is, pretty well.
Molly McFarlane is as desperate as a woman can get-even one alone on the frontier. Forced to flee with her late sister’s children, she must provide for her wards while outrunning the relentless trackers their vicious stepfather has set on her trail. To secure their future, she marries a badly injured man, assuming that when he dies his insurance settlement will provide all they need. But there is one small problem.
The man doesn’t die.
Hank Wilkins doesn’t remember the train wreck that he barely survived-and he certainly doesn’t remember marrying Molly. But he takes her home to his ranch, where Molly is quickly caught up in the boisterous Wilkins family. Molly knows little about caring for children, and even less about caring for a man-especially silent, brooding types like Hank. But even as Molly and Hank discover each other, the specter of the truth of Molly’s past threatens to tear them apart-and doom both her and the children she must protect…
If it sounds as good to you as it did to me, you’ll be fine. If you find yourself dwelling on probabilities, or thinking dismissively that obviously nothing is going to doom anybody, then this is not the book for you.
As far as the style goes…meh. Now I confess it, I am shallow. I prefer style over substance. I’m pretty indifferent to substance. Even the style I am willing to waive for good nookie, which is how I endure many a terribly written romance novel. Alas, no really explicit sex scenes here – though sometimes that’s a plus. Unimaginative scenes leave me writhing, yes, but with embarrassment, whereas overly convoluted ones break the flow, as I have to go back and try to work out the configurations, which is hard when someone is describing inventive bedroom contortions without any nouns. Not that I blame the writers exactly, it’s almost impossible to find names that aren’t off-putting (twat), clinical (rectum), or silly (winky wonky wonkerdoodle). I’m just saying, I understand why many readers skim what I generally consider to be the best bits, and I don’t require sex to love a romance novel. To illustrate, when the style includes the hero musing on the heroine in a nightgown thusly:
She turned, giving him an inspiring view of her butt, which shimmied like two armadillos doing a slow dance under a silk scarf as she walked toward the bed.
I don’t know about you, but I think it’s just as well not to go into intimate details.
Speaking of sex scenes, the real trouble for me didn’t come until maybe 2/3rds of the way in. Now, I don’t want to get overly personal, and I don’t want to offend anyone, but as it happens I have nothing against a good fictional, please let me stress the fictional part, fictional rape scene. I’ve been reading romance for a long time, and I appreciate all kinds of WTFery that is no longer popular. I have no problem with asshat heroes or beta heros, and fainting heroines or bitchy heroines. I’m tolerant of all kinds of things, from historical inaccuracies to purple eyes. But.
So our hero has discovered that his wife married him when he was unconscious for the money she’d get from his death, and then lied for a long time about him having amnesia after he recovered, and now he’s confused and angry. Fine. He yells at her and intimidates her and I think he tears the buttons off her shirt or something and stalks away. He’s been a pretty decent guy up till this point, but it’s been stressed a lot how much he can’t stand liars, so I am unsurprised, and indeed sympathetic to his point of view. She Did it for The Children, so while I am not exactly sympathetic to her POV, she gets a pass because them’s the rules here in Romancelandia. But then. He comes back, still angry, and demands sex (they haven’t had any yet) as proof of her contrition.
He came after her. “Are we married? Are you my wife?”
“Then act like it. Take off your gown.”
“Hank, don’t do this.” She crossed her arms over her chest.
I don’t find this sexy, or in character, but I’m going with the flow. I’m looking forward to the upcoming sex – what’s the point of having them marry early in the novel if there’s no sex? It’s been a long time coming, and I’m feeling a little impatient myself. She capitulates. Then the troublesome part.
Molly was familiar with the functioning of the human body, both male and female. She understood the mechanics of sexual congress through her medical books and conversations with camp prostitutes, but none of it by personal experience. She knew about the various physical responses to erotic stimulation. But…
Wait for it.
…she didn’t understand about the emotions and how necessary they were to mask the realities of the actual act of copulation.
This was a pretty big buzz kill for me. I’m all in favor of the actual act of copulation. It needs to be masked? If that’s like a bondage thing, fine. But if, as I suspect, it’s a “sex is disgusting or immoral” thing, it has no damn place in a romance novel. What’s the world coming to, I ask myself. Then I understand what the author is getting at, and the unhappiness increases. How?
He’s all over her, but he won’t kiss her mouth (maybe he’s a whore? I learned that from Pretty Woman. Hollywood wouldn’t lie to me; he must be a whore). She’s striving to establish some sort of intimacy. He won’t talk to her or let her touch him. She becomes unhappy, he (in one quick motion) thrusts inside her. This is the first, hottest, and most detailed description of sex in the book, mind you.
Her body recoiled. Her mind splintered in panic. This wasn’t a joining, or a chance for them to overcome the pain they’d caused one another. This was a cold, loveless coupling. Anguish swept through her…
That’s my ellipsis, btw, so we can skip to:
Dry-eyed and detached, she looked up at him looking down at her and felt something wither inside. This wasn’t even passion. This was punishment.
It’s not his man bits withering, I’m afraid. He carries on carrying on. And…you know what, it was bad enough reading this the first time. I’m done. There’s more of the same. It’s yucky. The next page she muses on how he hadn’t raped her, but she feels used, and wants to clean herself. I don’t know if this is actually rape, at no point does she say “no”, but that makes no less problematic for me. Whatever it is it’s all super yucky and Not Fun.
This was not the sort of behavior we had come to expect from some domineering, brooding hero – despite what the blurb will tell you, our hero is not brooding, just quiet, and really very considerate, and the only one who’s any good with the kids (there is a conspicuous lack of bond between Molly and the children but I think it’s mostly to give him a chance to establish how wise and nurturing he is). And you know, I’m not unaccustomed to character’s personalities undergoing radical transformations so as to enable certain sexual situations or other plot contrivances, but what does this ugliness gain us? Fucked if I know. Best guess: he needs to do something she can forgive him for to balance out their score cards or some shit.
While I’m complaining, now’s a good time to mention that the top on my list of most common romance novel fails (yeah, I have a list for that. I have a lot of lists) is villainy. It is really really hard to come up with a good villain. Almost never happens. They’re ciphers, by and large, you can’t even call them cartoonish because comic books have more self-respect. Of the embarrassing romance villains, top of that list is The Madman. I mean, you can’t just have a character do random meaningless bullshit to further the plot and justify it by slapping on a crazy patch. Except of course you can, happens all the time, but I still thought this was as thorough a collection of Eeeeevil as you can get (without playing the Nazi card):
He was thin, almost cadaverous, and moved with a sensuous hip-rolling gait, like she imagined a snake might move if it had legs. When he spoke, he gestured in the exaggerated way of an actor on the stage, and his voice was a lisping hiss that made her wonder if the flames that marred his face had damaged his vocal chords as well. There was a wrongness about him that went deeper than the scar.
Also, he’s described as feminine and he calls her lovey.
Oh yeah, and he eats children.
So Molly has to vanquish this guy, and she has to do it all by herself. Why? Because she’s left the now douchey dude and the eternally thankless kids and is on her own? Alas, no. It’s because he’s threatened them, and her (previously he dislocates both of her thumbs then tells her he’ll be back in a month, and comes back just when he said he would because, well, crazy people don’t need rational motivations, duh). But why does she ride out into a blizzard to deal with him by herself? I think it’s because the parallel structure with the previous book in this series requires a Strong Woman Who Slays Her Own Demons (SWWHOD), but I haven’t read that book so I’m just guessing (more on that later). But the explanation the book provides…oh, there isn’t one.
There was only one way to stop him, she realized in despair. And only she could get close enough to do it.
followed a little later by
There was no one else to stop him but her.
Oh, OK then.
It turns out that it doesn’t actually make sense. She realizes this once she’s killed the bad guy and meets up with hubby. (Where was he, you may ask, because the problem with SWWHODs [not that it’s a problem with them, actually I quite like them] is how to give the hero something more adequate to do than hand wringing? No problem, he was off beating to death with his bare hands the other villain, the bad step-father from the beginning, in front of the little boy who’s already witnessed one murder. So that’s OK. Really. The kid enjoys it. Really.) She has an epiphany: she doesn’t have to do everything on her own, like her father taught her, has family now, blah de blah, unconditional love. Yay.
So back to my second greatest peeve: bullshit secondary characters. Commonly in the form of sequel bait and painfully devoted servants* but also when characters from previous books reappear. I first realized this was a sequel (apparently it says so on the back but it’s covered up by the library sticker on my copy) when Our Hero’s brother shows up, and he’s a blustering, manipulative tool, but we’re supposed to like him. Also, he’s already married. And his wife is a Red-Headed English Lady, so there’s clearly been a book there. The two of them, plus their two (utterly personality-less) children (but you gotta have kids for a HEA so I don’t really mind) stick around for most of the book, adding absolutely nothing to my enjoyment of it because I haven’t read their story and I don’t care about them. I do learn lots of meaningful stuff about them: He’s dumber than rocks and devoted to his wife, and she set the previous villain on fire and loves big hats. I do enjoy an opposites attract story, maybe I’ll go look that one up.
Anyway, you’re probably wondering why this is a C and not a fail after the way I’ve been whining. The flaws are, although hilarious (except for that sex scene, that was Not Funny), pretty standard, and not out of bounds (except that sex scene, which seriously was Not OK). Really, for the most part I enjoyed it (except, you know). Why did I enjoy it? There was nothing really wrong with it (except…) which is another one of those non-ringing endorsements. I dunno, it’s a romance novel. I like romance novels. I wouldn’t go out of my way to get her other books, but I wouldn’t avoid them. In fact, the third one might be kind of good. I assume it’ll feature the third brother, the one who’s gone missing in this book, but a whore who’s serviced all three brothers describes him as the inventive one, so that sounds promising. I bet I’ll read it. What do you want me to say, I’m easy? Fine, I’m easy, but now I’m requesting a pen name if you want to use any of my rambles on your site.
*The servants in this book are at one point referred to as “buckskin-bellied beaners.” Yup.