Category Archives: Romance

Riding on Air

Maggie Gilbert. Riding on Air. Escape Publishing, 2013. ISBN: 9780857990457

One of those aphorisms that is often wheeled out to writers is to “find your own voice”. Maggie Gilbert has her own voice. It is funny, light, wry, self-deprecating, engaging and real. Reading Riding on Air is just like chatting to Maggie herself. I know this because I have known Maggie since we were about ten years old. I’m not going to tell you how long that is. As long as I have known her, Maggie has been writing and working towards being a published author, so I had a reasonable idea of her excitement when she told me that her first full-length novel was being published at Easter.

Of course, I was also worried about reading it. Or, more to the point, reviewing it. What if it sucked? It’s a young adult novel about teenage girls and horses, published by Escape Publishing, a new ebook imprint from Harlequin. I am not exactly this book’s target demographic. And my last experience of a Harlequin Mills & Boon romance was less than great.

I needn’t have worried. As I said, sitting down with Riding on Air was like settling in with Maggie for a natter. The book is funny, engaging and believable. Light without being vapid. In my opinion, being able to write good, realistic, conversations is perhaps the key sign of a good writer or, perhaps more accurately the real let-down of less good writing. It has never seemed that difficult to me, but some writers do seem to need to turn their characters’ conversations into speeches, making them mouth the things that are required to drive the story forward rather than letting them say what they want to say. I felt that the voices of Riding on Air’s characters were natural and flowing and authentic.

Melissa is 16, and devoted to giving her horse, Jinx, the best chance she can give him to shine at dressage. They’ve come a long way together, but Melissa’s juvenile rheumatoid arthritis is getting worse, and she’s stashing pills for the times her hands become too painful to prepare Jinx for the qualifying event coming up in Goulburn. And she’s worried that this flare-up may not go away. Of course, there’s also a boy.

I should have known he’d be the one to come to my un-rescue on his mechanical charger. I have that kind of luck. God, why didn’t you kill me in that fall?…

A lanky body moved in to block the sun and I blinked my watering eyes at the sudden change in light… I blinked some more, still sun-dazzled. Dazzled, anyway. William’s face came into focus, dark eyebrows frowning above narrowed lake-blue eyes.

The storyline follows Melissa as she pursues her dream of making Jinx the best dressage horse he can be, while she keeps her increasing pain a secret from her family, from William, and from her two best friends Tash and Eleni. A few online reviewers have commented that those not into horses might find all of the technical dressage detail a bit much. I found it interesting to understand a little bit more about what is going on between horse and rider, although there were a couple of moments where it got a bit beyond me and I felt I might have accidentally picked up a horse riding handbook.

We also watch as Melissa overcomes her lack of self confidence to realise that William does care for her, and that his interest is not some kind of cruel trick. Melissa feels all of her emotions in her guts. Fairly literally. The word “stomach” appears 70 times in the book, although it’s rarely clichéd. In fact, it’s amazing the sorts of original gymnastics Melissa’s stomach can do:

 My stomach plummeted and then curled in on itself, as tight and prickly as a startled echidna.

Most of the stomach quivering is, of course, related to William, who I found just a shade too restrained and wise for an eighteen year old boy. Although, my experience with eighteen year old boys is a bit dated.

There is a chapter towards the end of the book where Melissa, too nervous to sleep before her big day in Goulburn, chats in the kitchen with her stepmother Jennie. It’s an important scene where Melissa begins to realise that she may have misunderstood the motives of the people who have hurt her. It’s a lovely moment, and its revelations are pointed without being forced. And there is Maggie’s ever-present wry humour to even out any potentially bumpy bits.

“I stuffed it up,” I choked out.

“Maybe. But I’m sure you could fix it.”

“I’m not. He was really mad at me.”

“I don’t know what you two argued about but I do know this: that boy is totally besotted, Melly, and it wouldn’t take much effort from you, I’m sure.”

“He wants me to do something I can’t,” I said, and almost fell over myself as Jennie’s eyes widened. “No! Not that. He wouldn’t – I wouldn’t, not yet anyway – oh!”

Jennie laughed and shook her head, miming putting her fingers in her ears.

Canberra connections? The Caphs Count is becoming an increasingly vivid example of the importance of sample size when drawing conclusions from statistical data. Melissa and her friends live in Sutton, which literally butts up against the ACT border. Is very much a country town. At about half-an-hour’s drive from Civic, it’s not too far for William and Melissa to go out for a movie and get some Thai for dinner, but the action here is very much in the horse paddocks at home.

Riding on Air is, as the publisher’s blurbs tell us, a story about following your dreams, but it is also about deciding what you are and aren’t prepared to give to achieve them. These are life lessons we all need to learn at some time or other. It is something I think Maggie is pretty clear about too.



Caphs Count:




Filed under Romance, Women Writers, Young Adult

Always the Boss

Victoria Gordon. Always the Boss (An Australian Romance Classic). Mills & Boon, 1981. ISBN: 0263735389.

I need you to understand that I am making sacrifices for this project.

I used to half joke that one day I would take my long service leave from work to write a Mills & Boon. In the end I took LSL to study museum curatorship. Both the trodden and the untrodden paths have contributed equally to my income. Nevertheless, I suspect that the engagement with lecturers and students and museum objects was a better choice for me than a lonely life slogging away at a computer with the how-to-write-a-Mills-&-Boon guidelines in front of me.

Victoria Gordon has much more successfully engaged with the M&B formula, delivering 22 titles for Harlequin Mills & Boon between 1980 and 2010. These include a series of ‘Australian Romance Classics’ set in locations such as Tasmania, the Pilbara, Bundaberg, and Canberra. How very, very, fascinating then, to learn that Victoria Gordon is in fact Canadian-Australian Gordon Aalborg.

According to Amazon, Aalborg

was told by his editor to “keep your head down, your mouth shut and remember you don’t exist” — because Harlequin policy at the time was to claim that no man could write Harlequin-specific category romance.

This tempts me to read all sorts of additional gender politics into Always the Boss. Given that every other scene between protagonists Dinah Fisher and Conan Garth involves something on a continuum between sexual harassment and sexual assault, what am I to make of the fact that the author is a man? To make any cogent arguments I would need to read a few more examples. And frankly, I’m not prepared to do that.

Always the Boss starts promisingly:

The rollicking gossip of magpies coaxed Dinah out of a restless sleep while the sun still climbed hidden behind the imposing bulk of Black Mountain … she wasn’t quite fully awake when the frenzied, maniacal braying of kookaburras brought her suddenly upright in the strange bed…

Dinah has come from the UK to Canberra to work in a television news room and to try to fulfil the wishes of her dead uncle who, in return for a moderate bequest, desired that she come to Australia and “at least give it a go”. Her new boss, Conan Garth has a “lithe, catlike walk”, “sheer magnetism”, is “extraordinarily handsome” and is a bizarre psychopath with dangerous mood swings. You may have guessed that this last description is mine. Dinah of course falls fairly comprehensively in love.

After that promising beginning, each scene goes something like this: Dinah is overcome by Conan’s presence and feels awkward and flummoxed. She says something stupid that makes him angry, but his anger inexplicably turns to amusement and/or desire. Dinah melts. Conan recovers himself and returns to aloofness. Dinah cries. Rinse. Repeat.

The fact that the book is set in Canberra is somewhat incidental. Interestingly, even in the setting of a Canberra newsroom, there is no attempt to connect with the political world. There are some references to some contemporary issues such as the NCDC and the building of the Tuggeranong Parkway that help to authenticate the scene. I could get all defensive or analytical about a dismissive reference to the Legislative Assembly, which at that time would have been the non-elected, pre-self government advisory group. Covering it from a news angle probably was fairly anodyne, but couldn’t be any less career destroying for an up and coming journalist than the strange coverage Dinah gives to a jewellery exhibition.

Dinah and Conan set out on some weekend drives through the Australian high country, passing through the Brindabellas, the Cotter Reserve and Tharwa, noting titbits of local knowledge as they go, but it could just as easily have been the Blue Mountains. The Australian National University, scene of Dinah’s first on-air story, could be any other campus. The not-quite-accurate Paco’s Carousel on Red Hill could be a posh restaurant in any city. To my knowledge the National Press Club isn’t quite reproduced anywhere else in Australia, although how Gordon thinks they would fit upwards of 300 people in the dining room and still have room for a dance floor I’m not sure. No visit to Caphs, although Dinah does duck out to Kingston for a fleeting moment.

This is the first book I’ve come across during this project that is set in Canberra without in any way needing to be. Having chosen Canberra as a setting, Gordon doesn’t really make anything of it—he makes little attempt to draw on the unique features of the locale he’s chosen as a part of his plot. Canberra is just a background like any other, where people can do their jobs and take country drives and fall in love. Which is, to some extent, what I was looking for when I set out on this project. How very odd to find it here.



Caphs Count:



Filed under Romance

Manhattan Dreaming

Anita Heiss. Manhattan Dreaming. Random House 2011. ISBN: 9781864715804.

I read somewhere, but can no longer find it (bad scholarship, I know), that Anita Heiss is committed in her fictional writing to depicting Aboriginal people as ordinary individuals living their lives. This is an approach I wholeheartedly support, so I was quite excited about reading Manhattan Dreaming.

Heiss’ non-fiction writing, particularly Am I Black Enough For You?, has gained a lot of praise and attention, as well as some fairly spectacular vitriol. If Andrew Bolt hates you, you are a superstar in my book. I just wish Manhattan Dreaming was better written.

This book’s target market is clearly 20-something women, which I am not. Reading it during the recent public debate on how modern societies treat women, I wanted to shake the beautiful, accomplished, neurotic Lauren of Manhattan Dreaming and tell her she is not measured by the degree to which men admire her, either for her mind or her body. The references to men noticing and apparently desiring women are relentless.

However. None of this has much to do with Canberra, so let’s move on.

What interests me most is Heiss’ imagined role for Old Parliament House:

Emma had been at the forefront of the fight to get the site of Old Parliament House as the National Aboriginal Gallery back in 2006. She said she knew the government would never hand it over for an Aboriginal embassy but they could be persuaded to hand it over for a national gallery because of the success of our visual arts movement internationally…. As soon as we moved in she invited the Tent Embassy mob to take up residence in the old Country Party Rooms…

Colonising the colonisers. I mentioned this parallel universe to a colleague who works at OPH. She talked of the wide range of emotions and responses that Indigenous people who visit the House reveal. The Museum of Australian Democracy, the current interpreters of OPH, asked Indigenous community members to perform a smoking ceremony to try to heal some of the conflicted history of the building (smoke detectors off, of course). While some who now visit feel at peace, others still detect the spirit of dispossession. It is certainly contested ground. A site that each of us can look at and each see something different.

Apart from this wonderful alternative vision of a national monument, for much of Manhattan Dreaming Canberra exists to be different from New York. Can you believe, Grand Central Station is nothing like Kingston Station in Canberra? Century 21 is so much better than DFO and the Canberra Centre (emphasis added). Although Macy’s is a little bit like David Jones.

I’m being unkind, though. All the comparisons are made with affection, rarely judging better or worse, just different. Canberra and Goulburn are home for Lauren, and these bigger-smaller-busier-quieter-stranger contrasts are just a way of sizing up the unfamiliar against the known quantity of home. New York may have a funky bar on every corner, and Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread, but Canberra has breakfast at Caphs, and Goulburn has special family dinners at the Paragon Café. And all three are freezing in winter.


Winner 2010: Deadly Award for Outstanding Contribution to Literature

Caphs count



Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Romance, Women Writers