Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Trouble with Books

I was an early reader. From my standardized test results in 2nd grade, I was already reading at a 12th grade level. How do I know? Scarily enough, my Dad saved every report card from K through college graduation in a manila folder, including standardized tests. Many years later, he gave me this folder. I’ve yet to throw it away. Perhaps you’ll see me on A&E’s Hoarders one day?

My tale takes place in 6th grade. (I’ll leave it to you to guess the year.) A Judy Blume book was circulating around the school. I’d read the classics, including Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, but the buzz on this book was different. The rumor: this book was banned from our school library! When I finally got my sweaty hands on Wifey, I removed the cover so I could leave the book in my desk and read it at school. When you read quietly, the teachers pretty much left you alone. They had 30 kids to track. My eagle-eyed mother had only two chicks in her nest. And she didn’t miss much.

Soon parent-teacher conferences rolled around. Happy to not have school, I lolled around in bed trying to figure out just what the heck was going on with the “wifey.” It was about sex. I knew that much—but not a great deal more. What can I say? I’m Catholic, and my parents were pretty strict. And then…holy hell in a handbag! I’d left the book in my desk, and my mom had her conference today. Mom never missed the opportunity to go through my things. And there was no way she’d overlook a book with the cover torn off. That was blasphemy in my home! Luckily, I lived right across the street from my school, and I was able to sneak in and retrieve the book between conferences. My teacher suspected nothing—sometimes being a straight-A bookworm helps.

And then sometimes being a straight-A bookworm doesn’t help at all. At least that was the case when Mom caught me reading Johanna Lindsey’s Captive Bride. For those of you unfamiliar with this classic Lindsey, I quote verbatim from Amazon: "Once Christina had rejected Philip's fervent offer of marriage. But now she is to be his slave—desperate for the freedoms denied her...yet weakened by her heart's blazing desire to willingly explore her virile captor's most sensuous cravings." Apparently, Mom didn’t find it suitable reading material for her 11-year daughter.

Captive Bride is not my favorite Lindsey. After all, I was raised by a card-carrying member of the women’s rights movement. Mom’s motto: Anything a man can do, a woman can do better. She’s since relaxed this sentiment, but it’s too late for me. I continue to espouse it with great “fervor.” Even at 11, I wanted the heroine, Christina Wakefield, to engineer her own escape from the Sheik—not fall in love with the reprobate. And yet, Captive Bride gave birth to my love of romance novels. I continue to read them (and Johanna Lindsey) today. Her entire collection resides on my sagging bookshelves. Some I’ve read so many times, I’ve had to replace them. Despite the corny titles and the fact that Fabio appears on nearly every original cover, here are three Lindsey’s that are definitely worth a read.

Got Viking? Set in 873 Wessex, Hearts Aflame is the love story of feisty Viking heroine Kristen Haardrad and the powerful Saxon Lord Royce of Wyndhurst, who attempts—with varying degrees of success—to tame her. Kristen is not your traditional heroine. Not only is she 6 feet tall, she has zero interest in the muscle-bound Vikings of her village. Kristen longs for freedom and adventure, which is why she stows away on her brother’s longboat. Unfortunately the Viking raid goes awry. Kristen’s brother Selig is killed. (Or maybe not, as Selig gets his own book in Lindsey’s Surrender My Love.) When the Vikings are captured and enslaved by the Saxons, crafty Kristen disguises herself as a boy to escape the inevitable raping and pillaging. But Royce is no fool. He’s also not attracted to flaxen-haired males, so he quickly figures out Kristen’s secret. Let the games begin. Kristen and Royce are an equal match—stubborn, headstrong, and passionate. And while Royce thinks he has the upper hand when he beds Kristen, it’s actually Kristen who’s driving this story. The chemistry between Kristen and Royce is off the chart. So, if you like sweaty Viking sex in frigid Nordic temperatures, this is the book for you.

Defy Not the Heart features my favorite Lindsey hero—the gruff yet noble Ranulf Fitzhugh. Set in medieval England (circa 1192), the castle of Lady Reina de Champeney is under seige. In the hopes of forcing Lady Reina to wed, the dastardly Lord Rothwell has hired the brave and oh-so-buff Ranulf to kidnap the noblewoman. But Reina is no shrinking violet. She quickly comes up with a proposition for Ranulf—he should marry her himself. And from the way Lindsey describes the golden-haired knight, I’d have made the same offer. Reina is a little unusual for a Lindsey heroine in that she is not “breathtakingly beautiful.” Instead, Reina is a diminutive but resolute heroine who quickly wins over the hearts of Ranulf and readers. In one scene, the ubiquitous “other woman” tries to seduce the luscious Ranulf. She is summarily rebuffed when Ranulf makes it clear that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that he remains true to Reina. Now that’s romance.

Lindsey’s Once a Princess is yet another take on Beauty and the Beast. Set in 1835, Stefan Barany is scarred—physically and emotionally. In an act of bravery, a young Stefan was disfigured when he stepped in front of an assassin’s rapier. Today most women are repulsed by his ruined face. So when Stefan’s told he must travel to America, retrieve a long-lost Princess, and then marry her in order to receive the kingdom, Stefan is not a happy puppy—I mean, Prince. Then things get complicated. Stefan convinces his handsome cousin, Vasili, to pose as the Prince. The royal party finds that instead of living a life of exiled luxury, Princess Tatiana Janacek has lived a life of hardship and degradation. Even worse she’s clueless about her royal roots. Princess Tatiana, or Tanya as she is now known, believes herself the daughter of an abusive tavern-owner who has literally forced her to dance for her keep. Stefan is initially revolted by the slovenly Tanya. But it turns out that clever Tanya has hidden her breathtaking beauty to escape the attentions of drunken bar patrons. Beauty is unmasked first. Tanya further confounds her Beast by spurning the delectable Vasili and falling in lust with the scarred and surly Stefan. So what’s a Beast to do? My suggestion: just give in to his happy-ever-after. But this is a Lindsey—not a Disney. So Stefan must first get Tanya to forgive his deception, save her from assassins who’ve wiped out the entire Janacek family, and then finally accept that Beauty can love the Beast. 

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