Wednesday, February 16, 2011

TBR Challenge 2011: Comfort Food

The BookLand of Dreams by Cheryl St. John

The Particulars: Historical western romance, Harlequin Historical #265, 1995, Out of Print, has not been digitized but should be fairly easy to find used.

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?:  Cheryl St. John is an autobuy for me.

The Review: Every romance reader has at least one "comfort author."  An author whose books evoke warm fuzzy feelings - like drinking hot chocolate on a snowy day, your grandmother's apple pie, or homemade macaroni and cheese.  St. John is one of those authors for me.  If I had to label her particular "formula," I would say that she writes nice romances, about nice people.  Land of Dreams, only her third published book, reads like classic St. John.  If you've read this author before, this book holds absolutely no surprises....but then it doesn't have to.  It's pretty dang enjoyable, just like grandma's apple pie.

Thea Coulson has gone through life in her tiny Nebraska town known as Too Tall Thea.  She's either looking men in the eye, or looking down on them.  Between her height, her pale as snow complexion, and her red hair - well, it's no wonder she's an old maid.  Her status is also her burden to bear.  She runs her father's household, even though he's married to her stepmother.  She's also roped into various local causes, church functions, housewarming parties etc. etc. etc.  Thea does not have a life of her own.  Nobody is outright cruel to her, it's almost worse than that.  They take her for granted.   And she's so desperately lonely.  So lonely that when an Orphan Train rolls through and nobody claims Zoe, a young cripple girl who cannot talk, Thea convinces the social worker that she'll look after her until a suitable family can be found.

Booker Hayes has finally left the Army, and has gone to New York City to visit his younger sister.  Only he discovers both Julia and her husband have died, and his niece Zoe was taken to the foundling home.  When he gets there, he discovers he's too late.  She was hustled on board an Orphan Train.  So now he's off to Nebraska, where he discovers Zoe in the home of Thea Coulson.  Booker has some land in the area, and a lot of big dreams.  He wants to raise his niece, the only family he has left.  However, there's Thea to consider.  A woman he didn't expect to find, a woman he can't believe is still single.  Are all the men in town blind and epically stupid?

What we have here is a favorite trope among many romance readers: the Plain Jane heroine who is sitting on the shelf, and the hero who is immediately captivated by her.  There is no warming up period for Booker.  He takes one look at Thea and is smitten.  It actually gets worse for him once he gets to know her and discovers how kind, caring, and thoughtful she is....on top of being beautiful.  He can't believe his good fortune!  Now to convince her that he's the only one for her.

Naturally, it's not that easy.  Thea is filled with a lot of self-doubt.  Nobody is outright mean to her.  Nobody says nasty things to her...well, to her face anyway.  No, they don't see her at all.  She's the grease that keeps the cogs moving.  She's a necessity, but she's also wallpaper.  Nobody sees Thea, they just see what she can do for them.  And Booker is desperately afraid of turning into one of those people.  He wants Thea, and badly.  But does that make him just as selfish as....well....everyone else in her life?

The conflict here is very gentle.  Some would even say this book is a slow starter.  Even though she doesn't wallow, this is really Thea's story about her discovering her self-worth.  For that reason, some of the conflict between the couple stems from them not sitting down and hashing out their feelings.  Of course, after 27 years of believing she's not good enough, Thea's insecurities are pretty easy to understand.  What I really appreciated is that this allows the author to show the reader Thea's faults.  Without these faults, our heroine would have been a hopeless Mary Sue.  A Mary Poppins clone taking in orphaned children, baking pies for the church bake sale, and cooking her father's meals.  These moments allow the reader to see Thea's warts - she's slow to trust Booker, her selfishness.  It all makes her seem like a real person.

The author spices up the final quarter of the story with some external conflict.  This is actually pretty good stuff, although I would have liked more in the way of remorse from the idiot townspeople.  Also, this is when the relationship between Booker and Thea is finally consummated....and it's worth the wait.  I like sex as much as the next girl, but after a while I get a little bored with historical characters hopping in and out of bed without so much as a by-your-leave.  There's quite a bit of tap-dancing here, again because of communication issues, but hell, if I'm honest?  It was damn refreshing.

This is by no means my favorite book ever by St. John, but it was a pleasant, cozy read.  Which probably sounds like I'm damning it with faint praise - but I'm really not!  If you're a fan of historical westerns that give you that warm fuzzy feeling?  Yeah, this is good stuff.  I'm not going to say drop everything, run to the nearest UBS and buy it now!  But if it's sitting in your TBR or you stumble across it one day?  It's a really nice read.

Now someone pass me another slice of granny's apple pie.

Final Grade = B


Phyl said...

I'd like to read this. I think I'll stop in the UBS on the way home this afternoon! Thanks, Wendy.

Hannah said...

I noticed several older titles by Cheryl St. John were recently digitized but Land of Dreams was not among them. Oh well, if I want to read this I'm sure I can ILL it.

Victoria Janssen said...

Ooh, I don't have this one. It sounds nummy.

Wendy said...

Phyl & Victoria: St. John specializes in what I call "feel-good" romances, and this book is really a textbook example of her style. It's very warm, cozy, and leaves the reader with "happy feelings."

Hannah: My understanding from working with Harlequin on the digital Blogger Bundles is that contractual digital rights for some of these older releases are kind of hit or miss. So that's probably why this one hasn't been digitized yet.


This book has been reprinted a couple of times...according to the author, who I pestered by e-mail when I was reading this book :) So you should easily be able to score a copy through ILL or a UBS.....

E.D. Walker said...

So, if this isn't your favorite St. John, that begs the question: Which one is?

(Because I'd like to try that one too I should think.)

Wendy said...

E.D.: I'm still working on her early backlist, but so far none of her full-length historicals have been below a B grade for me.

My absolute favorite is Prairie Wife - a marriage in trouble story about a couple still reeling from the untimely death of their toddler son. That one has been digitized, so if you're an ebook reader, it should be easy to find.

You can read my full review of that one here:

Wendy said...

Sigh. Well that didn't work, and I'm crap with HTML. So let's shrink that URL. Try this one for the full review:

Amy said...

I love apple pie reads! Not sure if I have this one on my TBR, but I know based on some of your past reviews on her books, among others, I've got several St. John books in the TBR.

Yeah, thanks for that. ;-)

Amber (aka BBB) said...

I'm not a big historical western fan. (Waits for Wendy to smack me).

But I think I might just have a Cheryl St. John book somewhere in the TBR. The name looks familiar. I'll have to hunt it up. On the off chance that I am in the mood for a western.

Here's the link to your other review... (hope this works)

Prairie Wife Review

Phyl said...


azteclady said...

Well, damn, another title to hunt down!

(thank you, Wendy)

Wendy said...

Amy: Always happy to be of assistance :)

Amber: Tsk, tsk, tsk ::as Wendy woefully shakes her head:: St. John also has written a handful of Silhouette Special Edition titles, so maybe you've got one of her contemporaries lying around. And yippeee - your HTML worked! I'm HTML Clueless.

Phyl: LOL! Yeah, I think this one should be fairly easy to come by for folks who are interested....

AL: It's a very cozy read. Save it for a cold winter's day :)

nath said...

I totally agree with you Wendy on some authors having a certain style and maintaining it in many books. That's what make them comfort authors... cos you know going in what to expect and still end up enjoying it :) It takes talents to do so :)

As I said to Leslie, I need to start reading Ms St.John!

Marie-Thérèse said...

This sounds intriguing (I like Cheryl St. John but somehow missed this one). It's now moved from your TBR to mine thanks to the power of online shopping ;-)

FD said...

Oh, I haven't read this one. Maybe it'll be my post-exam treat.

Elen Grey said...

Wendy - You've got me thinking about comfort reads. We all have them.

I don't think I've read Cheryl St. John.

Leslie said...

I've always found stories about the orphan train fascinating. I've read a few but there's not too many out there.

Luckily, I do have this one on the TBR pile along with so many others. Love her writing. :)

JamiSings said...

I love the whole "no one but him can see how beautiful she is" trope - but, it seems to be my bad luck, the women are always tall! At least all the ones I read are.

Is it that most romance writers are tall? Is that why I can never find a short heroine?

Wendy said...

Nath: She writes such nice stories. Again, sounds like I'm damning her with faint praise - but they're just so....nice. And cozy. And now I want some hot chocolate LOL

Marie: I've still got hunt up her very first book, Rain Shadow, but then I should have all her historicals.

FD: Good luck on the exam! And yes, treat yourself when you're finished!

Elen: Every romance reader should have at least one. That author you turn too when you just NEED some comforting. Like gorging out on mashed potatoes :)

Leslie: The Orphan Train stuff is pretty light here - but I liked that the author didn't demonize the orphanage at all. She was very matter-of-fact about it. Not Dickensian, but also not Disney-fied either.

Jami: I was thinking of you recently when I read a book with a short heroine! Sadly, not one I can really heartily recommend. The author kept going on about how tall the hero was, and how tiny the heroine was - so I'm thinking this chick has got to be like 5'2" at the most. But then the author starts going on about how "long and shapely" the heroine's legs are. Which made no sense. Unless tiny and petite really meant 5'9", but then the hero would have had to have been 7 feet tall to make the other descriptions work.

Or else she had like a 3 inch torso.....


Really wanted to like that book too. Bother

JamiSings said...

Oh darn, Wendy!

Well, maybe if I whine enough on the internet some writer will finally take pity on me and write about a short, bottle blonde, overweight heroine with PCOS. LOL