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The Mystery of Laurie McBain, Author of the Classic Historical Romance, Wild Bells to the Wild Sky

24 Apr

One of the best things about living in the age of the ebook is seeing classic romance authors find a new audience with rediscovered backlists, usually with modernized covers. When I was on the Sourcebooks website shopping around the other day, I was thrilled to see some books of Laurie McBain featured (Devil’s Desire and Moonstruck Madness, both classics), although not the one I would love to get in ebook form, Wild Bells to the Wild Sky.

I loved Wild Bells to the Wild Sky ever since I snuck it off my mother’s romance novel shelf and the book holds up extremely well even with a modern light shining upon it (I wish I could say as much for some other authors). The book takes place during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and focuses on some very sexy privateers scoring points against disgruntled Spanish sea captains and getting rich in the bargain.

The book has the flavor of a 1980s historical in that it houses a sweeping plot covering decades with plenty of famous historical figures popping up throughout the pages.

Wild Bells opens with the sea voyage of her majesty’s privateer Geoffrey Christian, who is sailing his stunning Spanish wife and adorable little girl, Lily Francisca, to Hispaniola in the Caribbean in order to reunite his wife with her estranged family. Flashbacks illustrate that Geoffrey Christian stole his biggest prize when he boarded the Spanish ship carrying his wife and her family to Spain to conclude an arranged marriage for the beautiful spitfire. She was more than happy to run away with him and, despite her father disowning her, she has been happy in her marriage and loves her little red-headed daughter and sexy husband.

The original cover of Devil’s Desire from 1975.

Queen Elizabeth, realizing the opportunity as her lady-in-waiting fulfills a familial duty in visiting a dying mother in Spanish territory, decides to send along Sir Basil Whitelaw, an intellectual and court advisor who also happens to be Geoffrey Christian’s best friend. While Basil doesn’t enjoy leaving his wife and son behind, he reluctantly takes on this duty, with this cerebral man finding himself quite talented at the spy business. While on the island, he and little Lily both spot English traitors and Basil realizes they must return to England in order to alert the Queen to treachery.

But Geoffrey Christian has made enemies among his wife’s relatives, particularly the ones he’s stolen from while on the high seas, and their ship is set upon while still in the Caribbean. In an effort to save his family, Geoffrey sends one of his sailors to carry Basil (who needs to be kept safe to give his message to the Queen) and Geoffrey’s wife and daughter to a nearby island, with the express instruction to row them out to one of the Spanish ships when the battle is over. The sailor, hearing his captain’s boat sinking, goes to check for survivors and is never seen again. Basil and the women are stranded on the island.

Flash forward to a young Lily, her brother Tristram and little sister Dulcie all living alone on the island. Lily is beginning to get curves and become a woman (she’s around 12 or 13) and she and her siblings are savvy about living well in the wild. Tristram is Geoffrey’s son since his mother was pregnant with him when she was shipwrecked, but little Dulcie is Basil’s illegitimate daughter. To the children, it was understandable that these two wonderful people would have loved each other and created a family after Geoffrey Christian was killed, but things are about to change.

The change comes in the form of Valentine Whitelaw, Basil’s younger brother and also a privateer trained by none other than Geoffrey Christian who considered him a friend and promising sailor. Valentine is a captain now, also in favor with the queen and the lover of the fair (and slutty) Cordelia Howard. A sailor has been liberated from enforced slavery with the Spanish and carries the tale of bringing passengers safely off Christian’s boat. Before he dies, he manages to get this information to Valentine, who goes off in search of his brother and ends up finding the children. Through deception, he captures them and brings them on board, and all the children eventually begin to love and trust him.

When the Splendor Falls, the final novel of Laurie McBain, published in 1985, after which she retired at the young age of only 36.

The love goes rather far with Lily, who first resents Valentine and later develops a huge crush on him. The children are all fish out of water back in England where it’s cold and they can’t swim every day. None of them know how to live like the gentry they are, Tristram is not considered Geoffrey Christian’s son and heir since there’s no proof, and little Dulcie is almost taken away from her siblings by Basil and Valentine’s sister who sees the little girl as the last bit of Basil left on earth. Basil’s wife and son handle the situation with a tremendous amount of class (she’s remarried in the meantime, so it’s kind of a relief that Basil is dead, as much as she loved him). Lily is presented with the evidence that Valentine is in love with Cordelia, who is a humongous bitch to everyone but men, and realizes that he will always see her as a little girl, never returning her love for him.

Flash forward again and Lily is eighteen. The children are in a sucky living situation with an exploitative relative who is technically the heir and their guardian and who disgustingly has the hots for Lily. A series of events has the children and their trusted retainers believing they killed their guardian, so they flee into the night with the help of a sexy part-gypsy. He helps them become entertainers so they can hide under the radar and make their way to help. Valentine happens to be home from a voyage, goes looking for the missing children and ends up finding Lily, who he doesn’t recognize since it’s been years since he last saw her. One look at this stunning redhead and he falls head over heels in lust with her. She’s crushed he doesn’t recognize her and is planning on cluing him in, but not before some pretty passionate kissing and groping is exchanged. The remainder of the novel is about going back to the island to discover evidence Basil left behind and uncovering the traitor to the Queen who has lived all this time thinking he got off scot-free. Oh, and Valentine realizes that Lily is exactly the woman for him, falling in love with not only her beauty but her intelligence, loyalty, and pluck. Her streak of wildness left over from the island is the perfect compliment to this privateer, although it takes a little while for him to convince her fully to that effect.

I cannot tell you how much this book kicks butt! McBain’s writing is pitch perfect – her main characters are gorgeous but flawed human beings you root for, her secondary characters are so three dimensional you end up thinking you know them in real life, and her historical sense of time and place clearly has a ton of research to back it up. Her plot is intricate and tight, with all subplots sewn up and just the right amount of conflict. She’s an amazing writer who, back in the bodice ripper days, wrote sassy heroines who were not too stupid to live (just a little naive) and heroes who were not complete alpha dicks like so many of the 1970s and 80s male leads. Her love scenes are plenty hot, even by today’s standards, and highly emotional.

So who on earth is Laurie McBain and where did she go?

Laurie McBain’s official author photo from the 1970s. She looks like she’s about to burn her bra but instead wrote some of the hottest selling romance novels of her day.

Most of the blog posts I’ve read use Laurie McBain’s official wikipedia page to indicate her oeuvre of seven historical romances, all of whom were New York Times Best-Sellers. In the “Paperbacks” article in the New York Times Book Review article from February 1977, Moonstruck Madness was outperforming Stephen King’s Carrie and Children of Dune by Frank Herbert.

The first mention of her in the context of her success occurs in a 1975 NYT article on the latest paperbacks. Under the top ten ranking (Devil’s Desire is under Jaws by Peter Benchley and Fear of Flying by Erica Jong to give you a sense of what other books were being published at the time), a gossipy on-dits column mentions Laurie as a newly arrived wunderkind from the San Bernardino Valley who spotted a notice in Writer’s Digest magazine that Avon publishers were accepting manuscripts from unagented writers. She had read Kathleen Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower and couldn’t find anything else quite like it, so she decided to write her own book along those lines (“Ah, Romance! It Sets” 29).

The real genius was the Avon publishing house, still a powerhouse in the world of romance, who was trying something new for the time. “Avon, it seems, has been having extraordinary success with original romantic novels written by quiet homebodies, promoting them with the vigor usually reserved for big-name authors. Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers, have each published two novels for an average of more than 1 million copies” (“Paperbacks: New and Noteworthy” 295). Avon’s visionary editor was Nancy Coffey, who was credited with setting the trend of publishing “epic historical romances” the size of doorstops from unknown authors (“Ah, Romance! It Sets” 29).

Dark Before the Rising Sun (Dominick Series #3) by Laurie McBain (Avon, 1982)

They were obviously clever to snag McBain who, according to the article, did months of research into the time period and sent her manuscript to Avon a year after seeing the Writer’s Digest blurb (“Ah, Romance! It Sets” 29). Six months after that she received the notice that the book was accepted for publication with only minor revisions and then received one copy of the 510,000 books Avon placed in bookstores all over the country. By 1977 what some male chauvinist pigs were calling “the hysterical romance” was an entire subgenre taking the best-seller list by storm. Its graphic sexual content often caused it to receive the moniker, “erotic historical romance” which sounds strangely familiar today (Walters 206). By 1980, the New York Times reported McBain had bought a beach front home in Carmel, California and was busy outlining her next novel (which was probably Dark Before the Rising Sun) (Walters BR7).

Wild Bells to the Wild Sky would follow (1983) and finally When the Splendor Falls (1985) with McBain showing her facility in a variety of historical time periods (British regency and the American Civil War were popular in the 1980s). But then her writing came to a screeching halt. Her Wikipedia page says that after only seven years of writing, her father’s death caused McBain to end her career and no more novels were published.

If this is the case (and I can’t find any evidence one way or the other, although there are still a few databases unmined), it’s incredibly sad, as she was a fresh, talented voice who stood out in her field. The good news is that many of her books have withstood the test of time (and are available used inexpensively) so you can still make sure you have McBain’s work on your bookshelf.

Take a walk back in time and enjoy the writing of Laurie McBain. It’s my hope she is living a happy life at that beach house in Carmel, and fully understands what a gift she gave romance readers with her excellent novels. Thanks, Laurie!

Works Cited

“Ah, Romance! It Sets Hearts Aflutter, Cash Registers Too.” Chicago Tribune 13 Nov. 1977: 29.    ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.

“Article No. 9 – No Title.” New York Times 27 Feb. 1977, New York Times Book Review: 239. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.

“Paperbacks: New and Noteworthy.” New York Times 27 Apr. 1975: 295. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.

Walters, Ray. “Paperback Talk.” New York Times 3 Aug. 1980: BR7. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.

- – -. “Paperback Talk.” New York Times 19 June 1977: 206. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day: The Best Irish Trilogy – the Gallaghers of Ardmore by Nora Roberts

17 Mar

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and it’s only natural that a romance reader’s fancy turns to thoughts of Ireland, specifically the spell the Emerald Isle casts on the romances set on its green shores.  When I hear “Irish romance” without a doubt my thoughts go to the best Irish romance trilogy EVER, Nora Roberts‘ The Gallaghers of Ardmore.

Originally published in 1999 and 2000 (thus earning it the label of “classic romance” for this blog), this was one of Roberts’ forays into adding a paranormal element into her plot.  I like recommending the book for people who are leery about paranormal, because it’s only a minor plot element, so it doesn’t put readers off, simply adding a tint of myth.  The Irish setting (and so many books set in Ireland do describe the environment, especially of rural or small village life as “magical”) also helps suspend disbelief and the faerie king provides a good foil for our heroes and heroines, prodding them to action because of his personal agenda, and berating them when it looks like they are going to louse everything up.  But I digress.

In Jewels of the Sun, American psychology professor Frances Jude Murray has left a painful divorce behind in Chicago, deciding to do a little research in the Irish cottage in the seaside town of Ardmore. She quickly discovers her grandmother’s cottage harbors a locally famous ghost, a sad, beautiful woman, Lady Gwen, who fell in love with Carrick, the Faerie prince. Desperate for her to run away with him, he attempted to bribe her on three occasions with diamonds, pearls, and sapphires, but each time she refused because he didn’t think to offer her his love. Gwen went on to marry and have children, but her soul still pines for him as he does for her. They are both trapped away from one another until three couples profess their true love to one another, accepting the gift they are being offered in the other person’s love and affection.

Aidan Gallagher runs his family’s tavern in Ardmore and while he did plenty of roaming (ahem) in his youth, he is content to provide food, drink and Irish music to his neighbors and the tourists of Ardmore. When this reserved beauty from America with family ties to the town enters his tavern, his body and mind go on full alert. Jude knows that she is not the type of woman to have a fling, but Aidan’s Irish charm and sexy body make this an ideal time to throw caution to the wind. They both enter into the relationship only to discover much more about themselves they thought possible, including the recognition that this passion for one another could indicate a deep and abiding love if they are willing to take the chance.

In a world of reformed man-whores, Aidan is a breath of fresh air.  It’s not that he wasn’t a little wild in his youth, but he doesn’t take an intimate relationship lightly and it’s clear he cares for Jude from the start.  Jude finds not only sexual satisfaction in Aidan but a warm friendship, friendship that extends to his brother Sean and sister Darcy and their family friends the O’Toole’s, particularly Darcy’s good friend, Brenna.  The classic repressed good girl, Jude has been living her life for other people, and it takes a good deal of bravery to cast that habit aside and begin to live for herself and what she wants.  The tavern scenes are particularly rich, and the hot scene of Jude modeling her new underwear set for Aidan at closing is quite a standout!

In Tears of the Moon, the redheaded tomboy spitfire Brenna O’Toole admits to herself that she has loved dreamy musician Shawn Gallagher from afar forever, but she’s never had the guts to show him.  Confident in her sexuality, she nevertheless has some self-esteem issues in the idea that she’s not a girly girl type to attract the men in droves.

This combination makes the two of them a clash of personalities (the central focus of the plot) as Brenna often makes quick decisions based on what she thinks is right, rather than coaxing others into her way of thinking. Her family life is both poignant and laugh out loud funny, and the way she uses the family handiman business to constantly be in the haunted cottage (now occupied by Shawn) is adorable.  Artistic Shawn needs a kick in the pants to stop hiding his talent and move past just being the cook in the Gallagher tavern and Brenna’s force of nature personality and gorgeous body have taken over his dreams, day or otherwise.

As in any good trilogy, not only do we have the window into Brenna and Shawn’s minds, but we get to see Aidan and Jude as a married couple providing secondary character depth and goodness.  This book really is more about two very different people showing each other that they can have more than just a physical relationship, but that it’s not necessarily going to come easy while they figure out how to work with each other rather than accidentally hurt their partner.  The standout scene has to be Brenna kissing Shawn for the first time “just to show him what he might be missing” in the front yard of the cottage.

But the curse for Carrick and Lady Gwen doesn’t get broken unless three couples are successful and the last Gallagher is going to be a tough nut to crack. Stunning Darcy brings men to their knees on a regular basis, a fact of which she is all too aware, but she struggles to find a man she can have an equal reaction to, particularly when she has convinced herself that she wants a rich man who can give her the travel and material goods she’s missed growing up in a working class household.  In Heart of the Sea, the Gallagher family tavern has entered into a partnership with American developer Trevor Magee, whose family has painful ties to the town of Ardmore.  Trevor and Darcy’s attraction is instant and should come with a “highly combustible” warning, but there are naturally complications.

Trevor doesn’t just look for thriving restaurant and taverns to purchase, his many companies also find musical acts and the Gallaghers, especially talented vocalist and musician Darcy, are solid gold.  When they commence their relationship, Darcy and Trevor begin to wonder how much of it is business with a little something extra and how much of it is something more?

This is the hardest of the three books for me to warm up to, mostly because while Darcy is a good friend and great sister, I find her focus on finding a rich man distasteful.  Trevor is a handsome, tortured character who saves the book for me, and it’s probably telling that the standout scene is not one between the couple, but rather the part of the book where Trevor is trapped with Jude during a storm and ends up helping her deliver her and Aidan’s daughter.

This trilogy lives in my ereader so I can have it wherever I go and it’s a rare year where I don’t reread the books a few times just to sigh over the Irish setting and enjoy the supernatural quality of love.  Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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