Sunday, March 10, 2013

My Road from Mills & Boon to the Land of Happily Ever After

The year was 1980. I lived in London and worked at the London (Sunday) Times, selling business advertising. My daily commute involved a long train ride from Bexleyheath, Kent to Charing Cross Station. From there I took a bus to Theobald's Road and walked up Grays Inn Road to the (former) Times building.

 Between the bus and train rides, I had a lot of time to read. I was young and poor and, while I did spend a lot of time at the library, hardcover books were heavy to lug around. I regularly brought Agatha Christie paperbacks with me, since I had all of her books (in multiple editions).

 Eventually I tired of rereading those, and was drawn to a book stall I passed every day in a street market on Grays Inn Road. They didn't have many mysteries (my genre of choice) but they had loads of Mills & Boon books. I'd never read one, and I imagined they would be mushy and somewhat frowsy, not my taste at all. (I pictured the authors as bouffant-haired Barbara Cartland-types, an image that makes me laugh now.) But the bookstall sold used Mills & Boon paperbacks for ten pence each or a pound for a whole bag, a price point that fit my budget perfectly. I decided to give them a try.

My first time out, I bought a bag and filled it with an assortment of authors. The mix included Janet Dailey, Violet Winspear, Helen Bianchin, Sara Craven, Carol Mortimer, Margaret Pargeter, Margaret Way, Penny Jordan, Charlotte Lamb, Anne Mather, Karen VanDerZee and others. I picked one at random to read on the train home: ONE OF THE BOYS by Janet Dailey. I finished it before the train arrived at my station.

Soon I was buying a bag of Mills & Boon books a week, reading them like a kid devours candy. I even broke down and bought NEW editions. The covers were mostly a bit hokey and embarrassing - I often hid the books inside magazines. But I didn't buy them for the covers, I bought them for the stories. Within a very short time I was reading two or three romances a day. Soon I had read all of Janet Dailey's books, all of Charlotte Lamb's, all of Margaret Way's books, and I had a long list of other favorites.

 By the time we moved back to the United States a few years later, I was well and truly hooked. As soon as we settled in to our new house, I subscribed to Harlequin Presents, Silhouette Special Edition, Candlelight Ecstasy Romance and more. Whenever a new line was added (Blaze, Desire, etc.), I subscribed to it, too. I read the books as fast as they arrived, and quickly filled a whole bookcase with my "keeper" romances.

Before long, my favorites were triple-stacked on the shelves.


 I realized that, while I still loved mysteries of all kinds, many of my favorites could be classified as romantic suspense - books like Mary Stewart's TOUCH NOT THE CAT, and Evelyn Anthony's THE TAMARIND SEED. In my usual way, I found authors I liked and read everything they wrote. Soon it wasn't enough.

 One author on my keeper shelf was Nora Roberts, so when I began seeing her books in airports and grocery stores, I decided to check them out. ALL of them. When I finished reading all of her books, I panicked. What would I read now?

I discovered Jennifer Crusie's books in Las Vegas. While my husband attended a business conference, I was excited to find a small bookstore between the Mandalay Bay hotel and the Luxor. They had a big display of Crusie's books. I bought one called TELL ME LIES and went outside to sit by the pool and read. A few hours later, I'd finished the book. When I looked up from the pages, the sun was setting, I was the only person by the pool and the gates were locked. Luckily, I found a maintenance man who let me out. I went straight back to the bookstore and bought every Jennifer Crusie book they had.

It's been 30+ years since I read my first Mills & Boon novel. Tempus has definitely fugited! I no longer subscribe to every Harlequin line, but I still read category romance. A lot of my friends write for Harlequin, and I still tend to focus on my favorite authors. (Did I mention I have a LOT of favorite authors?) Still, it was Mills & Boon who started it all, and Harlequin who sealed the deal. I blame them for the overflowing state of my bookshelves. They are packed with every sub-genre of mystery and romance as well as some sci-fi and paranormals.

My family doesn't understand my love of romance novels, but to me it's a no-brainer. I read for enjoyment, and there's nothing more satisfying to me than a happy ending. I don't hide covers anymore - partly because they've improved a lot and partly because I'm a romance reader, and I don't apologize for it. Anyone who brushes off romance novels (or writes them off as "bodice-rippers") has probably never read one (or not recently). They're bloody hard to write, and I am thankful for all the authors (nearly always women) whose books brought me joy. You're a class act, ladies. Thank you! And thank you, Mills & Boon, for setting me on the path to romance.


Debbie Haupt said...

Becke, thanks for the blast from your past. I have several HQN authors who send me Mills & Boon copies all the time, it's wild to compare our US covers with the UK ones.
thanks for the share, that's quite an act to follow. I was young and poor and living in St. Louis your life sounds much more adventurous than mine

Becke Davis said...

Debbie - It may SOUND adventurous but we were dirt poor then. Actually, my job at the Times was an upgrade, so we were somewhat better off by then. It was quite an adventure working in the original Times building. I practically needed a guide to get my pay. (We got paid in CASH, not by check!)

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