Sunday, January 30, 2011

Ski Resort Nurse

By Jane L. Sears, ©1962

Nurse Quentin McCall had two great loves—skiing and nursing, and the Crystal Valley hospital seemed the ideal place to combine them. But lovely Quentin soon found herself tangled in a snowdrift of conflicting emotions. For two men occupied her thoughts and neither would believe Quentin to be what she was. To the wealthy widower Alex Kriloff, she was the past refound, the dead come alive. To Dr. Ken Johnson, who turned a cold shoulder to romance, Quentin was a disturbingly beautiful reality. Quentin asked herself, “If a mask was a necessity for love, was she willing to wear one?”

GRADE: A-

BEST QUOTES:
“I got TB bundling with a doll in Smitty’s sleigh!”

“I’m meant for greater things than emptying sputum cups all day long!”

“Quentin couldn’t seem to stop Tillie from jamming those needles into her.”

“She wondered where he was and if he was still tortured.”

REVIEW:
Quentin is a fresh nursing school graduate who has decided to take a job at a hospital at a ski resort in the Sierra Nevadas. She’s been skiing her entire life, having grown up in New Hampshire, and this job will allow her to combine her two passions. Of course, she finds some new ones just minutes after walking through the hospital door. Dr. Ken Johnson instantly reveals himself as “a complete grump, disliking youth and fun.” He hates skiing and young nurses, who he believes come to his hospital to meet unattached millionaires who have broken a leg on the slopes. And he’s rude, sarcastic, and constantly angry, shouting at nurses and patients alike. So Quentin is instantly infatuated, “glad she had on the black knit stretch pants that flattered her long-legged, narrow-waisted figure.” She can’t stop thinking about the big jerk, though he gives her little encouragement—just one fleeting moment when, for once, he apologizes for his rudeness and says, “I wish…” before being called away to attend to a patient. Love does not take a great deal of fuel to start a bonfire in a vintage nurse romance novel.

There is, of course, another man. Alexander Kriloff is an insanely wealthy recluse who spots her schussing down the slopes one evening from his mountaintop aerie through binoculars and spends weeks uncharacteristically searching the pubs for her. His is a tragic story: He and his new bride had come to his house in the mountains for a skiing honeymoon, but she came down with appendicitis just as a blizzard set in, and there was no way to get to the hospital on the other side of the Donner Pass—and she died of a ruptured appendix in her husband’s arms two days after their wedding. He responded by building the hospital, where Quentin now works, in her honor. It’s quite a hospital, too, where waiters serve the patients bloody Marys, the cafeteria offers filet mignon, every window has a million-dollar view of the slopes, and the patients don’t have to leave until they want to. It costs plenty, of course, but most of the patients are wealthy jet-setters who don’t mind the bill.

Alexander meets her eventually—and then it’s a whirlwind romance. He has her over for dinner, fetched in the Rolls by his chauffeur, and gives her a tour of every room in the house—except one; gosh, I wonder what’s in there? He flies her to San Francisco for an evening of cocktails at the Top of the Mark and then dinner at Ernie’s. He sends her five dozen roses. But she has limits: When he tries to give her a gold clock with the alarm set for 8:00, the time of their date that night, she gently returns it. She quickly comes to feel a motherly affection for him that she calls love. “Only one thing disturbed her and that was his increasing possessiveness … demanding she spend every spare moment with him until at times she felt very nearly suffocated.” However, as soon as he proposes to her, “his complete need for her marked by a possessiveness that had troubled her previously, made her own heart respond and want to give.”

I could tell you more about the plot, but why bother? That’s not why you should read this book. The writing is entertaining, descriptive, and campy, everything I look for in a VNRN. The romance is amusingly over the top: “Her hands still caught firmly in his, Quentin slowly lifted her eyes, felt herself drowning in the depth of his brooding gaze.” The luxe settings help with both the appeal and the camp: “With a small sigh she turned in the seat, gazed at the back of Charles [sic] neat neck beneath his chauffeur’s cap, and let her fingers idly trail along the leopard skin upholstery. ‘My gosh!’ she whispered to herself. ‘Wait until Olive hears about this!’ ”

The biggest flaw this book has, apart from Quentin’s inexplicable attraction to Dr. Johnson, is the copy editing. Now, I know the people out there who care deeply about commas can be counted on one hand, but I am one of those very curmudgeons. Typos such as “grizzly detail” (they mean grisly) and “her body felt like it was being seered” (it should have been seared) can be shrugged off with a laugh, but the constant confusing of it’s with its was absolutely maddening. (The former means it is, as in it’s mine, while the second refers to something belonging to it, as in its color.) However, with such fabulous writing, a great cover, and another of Ace’s magnificent cover lines—“adventure and romance in two white worlds”—I can heartily recommend this book, it’s disrespect for punctuation notwithstanding.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Journey for a Nurse

By Arlene Hale, ©1966

Roberta Sterling, R.N., looked forward to her new job with mixed feelings. As the private nurse of the wealthy, aged Clayton Prescott, she would travel to California. When she arrived there she became involved—almost against her will—with two romantic young men who vied for her affections: her employer’s handsome chauffeur and the old man’s rakish son. But, back home, there was another who lay claim to her heart. And Roberta could never forget him. Then, in a whirlwind of dramatic events that left her breathless—Roberta reached the decision that brought her the greatest happiness she’d ever known.

GRADE: C

BEST QUOTE:
“She felt a loyalty to her patient, although he was now dead.”

REVIEW:
I’m hard pressed to imagine what made author Arlene Hale decide it was a good idea to write about a road trip with four cranky people from the upper Midwest to California in which they seldom pull over or see any sights whatsoever. But there you have it, the backbone of Journey for a Nurse in a nutshell.

Well, I’m being a little unfair. There are the interpersonal relationships to explore—cantankerous millionaire, Clayton Prescott, now confined to a wheelchair and near death, is either driving everyone mercilessly or sleeping; Claud, the chauffeur, hates everyone except nurse Roberta Sterling, whom he wants to marry apparently based on little else than her appearance; secretary Elsa has little to say except, “Yes, sir”; and nurse Bobbie tries to get Clayton to swallow his pills and go to sleep in between fending off passes from Claud. You can see this is not going to be the most riveting vintage nurse romance novel on the shelf.

Bobbie “was 25 and not getting any younger,” hanging out with perennial good-time boy Joey Russell, who after years of dating has not asked her to marry him. So she accepts a job to accompany Clayton to San Diego by car to see his daughter, Nadine, before he dies. Bobbie’s chief qualification for the job, it seems, is her looks: “You’re pretty. I like that,” Clayton tells her. “As long as a man has to be sick, he might as well have a pretty nurse to take care of him than an ugly one.”

Clayton also has a son, Elliott, and there appears to be some bad blood between Elliott and Claud, and the hints about this are dropped as subtly as neon signs along the way. Eventually we learn that Claud’s sister, Jan, had been going with Elliott, and they were in a car accident and she was killed. Elliott is supposed to be in Europe, but somehow he tracks them down in his zippy sports car at their hotel in the Arizona desert—hard to imagine how he could have done so, since no one has been in touch with him to tell him where they are. He and Claud instantly start hissing at each other, and it’s clear there’s going to be a showdown at some point.

Curiously, during a couple of chapters the narrative voice switches from Bobbie to Claud, though this enables us to learn exactly nothing more about his character, apart from the fact that he’s really bad at seducing girls and “seething … because of Jan and what had happened to her.” Despite his dark moods, Bobbie tries to talk herself into falling for Claud, mostly just to forget about Joey: “There was much to admire about him. He handled the car well. He was very much aware of his position and he never stepped out of line.” Maybe it’s just me, but when I think of attractive qualities, good driving and obeying the boss are not at the top of my list.

Were women ever treated as disturbingly as every young man who runs in to Bobbie treats her? About the first thing Elliott says to her when they meet is, “Oh, don’t go, nurse. You’re the best part of this setup that I’ve seen so far.” He “reached out and wrapped a finger around a lock of her hair” on several occasions, though they are practically strangers. Claud approves of her not walking out after dark alone, he tells her, because “I’d be tempted to abduct you and run away with you, myself!” This sort of creepy aggressiveness toward women occurs frequently in VNRNs, and instead of being completely repulsed by it, our heroines either let it pass unremarked or, occasionally, are flattered by it. Let’s hope this was more fiction than real-life in the 1960s, but if even a hint of it is true, let us all pause for a moment and give profound and fervent thanks for women’s lib.

The medicine in this book is as outdated as its objectification of women. The reason Clayton can’t fly to California is that “air travel was out because of his heart”—instead he has to spend a week driving 2,500 miles, because this will be so much less stressful. When his heart does start acting up, the cardiologist diagnoses his problem by saying that his heart is “acting sort of cute.” And Bobbie tells someone to make a pot of coffee during a moment of crisis because “it helps settle the nerves.” You’d think if you made a living writing these books, you might take ten minutes to bone up on a few basic medical facts.

This book has no imagination, no sparkle, and no appeal. The best thing about it is the cover, so once you’ve looked that over, toss this book aside and move on to something else.



This is another cover for the same book. Illustration by Lou Marchetti.
 



Thursday, January 27, 2011

Nurse in Hollywood

By Jane Converse, ©1965
Cover illustration by Robert Abbett

Her ash-blond hair. Her big brown eyes. Her pert figure. These were only frosting to her personality—a personality that was pure whistle bait. So what if Kitty Walters was a nursing student just three months short of graduating? So what if her idea of heaven was the symbol R.N. pinned on a starched white uniform? Phil Harlan wasn’t called “Boy Wonder” for nothing. He was dynamic, magnetic, charming, a glib Svengali whose record of convincing was 100 percent. Phil Harlan would have no trouble turning a dedicated would-be nurse into a determined Hollywood starlet. At least that’s what Phil Harlan thought …

GRADE: C

BEST QUOTES:
“That’s what M.D. stands for, didn’t you know? Mighty Dictator.”

REVIEW:
I was looking forward to reading this book because of the Richard Prince painting of the same name, done in 2004. He created a series of paintings based on the titles of vintage nurse romance novels, including Surfing Nurse, Dude Ranch Nurse, and Danger: Nurse at Work. Clearly I am not the only one drawn by such fantastic titles.

The actual story, however, is not as intriguing as the painting. Kitty Walters is three months shy of graduating from nursing school, dating resident Rex MacMillan. He says he loves her, but she thinks he is “caustic and superior … he lived medicine; he was surgery. … He thinks the world begins and ends with a hypodermic needle.” On study night in the nurse’s dorm, when they should be studying the names of the leg muscles, the students are watching Career Girl, U.S.A., a show that travels from town to town, “interviewing the outstanding local career girl,” with musical numbers as interludes. Something tells me this show would not knock Dancing with the Stars out of the ratings.

Dr. MacMillan is not a fan of the show, because he thinks the career girls are “picked for her measurements … The typical career girl’s apt to be a pleasantly plump, unglamorously efficient bank clerk from Podunk, Nebraska.” Well, not all of them. Kitty’s dorm-mates have sent her photo to the Career Girl producer, Phil Harlan, because he is looking for a real-life career girl to star in the movie version of his TV show. (It’s curious to ponder an era in which a working woman was such a novelty that she deserved her own film.) They’ve asked Kitty for an interview, and when she walks in the door on “those perfect Walters gams,” Phil takes one look at her and starts to gush: “You are it! You are she! She is her! We are made!
When she tells Rex that Phil has offered her a two-year movie contract, he tells her she’s a fool to chuck her nursing career. “It was reminiscent of the time Kitty’s father had told her that she lacked the guts to finish a nursing course”—which was a large part of why she signed up in the first place. So she instantly decides to drop out of school and accept Phil’s offer. She is driven by “an insatiable restlessness, a desire for newness and excitement”; “though she knew her gain would probably never wipe out her loss, she also knew that pride would not let her turn back now.” This girl has a few issues she needs to work out.

So off she goes to Hollywood, where she finds a snazzy new apartment, Asian furniture, and a lot of new party dresses—and then she hangs around the house, waiting for Phil to call, for weeks. While she could have been finishing school. The film director, Damon Dyer, is a fat, has-been alcoholic with fabulous lines like, “Here, let me get you a weak ginger ale,” or, “Go embellish Mother Nature while I pop around the corner. I believe I noticed a haven for weary travelers as I drove up.” He is critical of Kitty, telling her, “To be driven is tragic but understandable. Merely to fall into a trap because you’re mildly intrigued …” But he is also kind, and takes her to a Christmas party at Phil’s house that the host neglected to invite her to.

Eventually Phil shows up with a script, and since Kitty has nothing else to do, she memorizes it from beginning to end. But on the first day of filming, which is in the desert 30 miles from LA, Phil fires the script writer and tosses out the script, writing a new one on the spot, which even Kitty can tell is wooden and hackneyed. So the actors spend a lot of time waiting around the set, contemplating Phil’s rapid crash, while Phil argues with Damon. Soon Damon walks off the set, and is promptly bitten by a rattlesnake. While Phil screams that someone should be cutting Damon’s leg and sucking out the venom (gross!), Kitty snaps at him to keep quiet, coolly packs the leg in ice, and keeps the patient calm en route to the hospital. After that, without Damon behind the camera, Phil is directing, too—and everyone can see that this production is going straight to video.

Kitty tries to quit, but Phil threatens her with a breach of contract suit. Then Rex shows up out of the blue on the set, and Kitty drums up an argument with him that even she can see is absurd. “She was succumbing to the same perversity that had made her defy her father when he had objected to her nursing career, the same mindless obstinacy that had prompted her to fight with Rex once before, discarding an R.N. degree three months before graduation for this debacle in the desert. She regretted her words in almost the same instant that they spilled from her, yet spewing out her anger seemed the only balm for her injured pride.” But then there’s a terrible sandstorm, and some nearby tourists are injured and require immediate medical attention—there’s nothing like a compound fracture of the leg, facial lacerations and third-degree burns to bring a couple together. Whether they are able to heal an impulsive would-be nurse’s psychological difficulties remains unanswered.

Sending Kitty into a miserable experience in Hollywood was a bit too easy; a deeper (yes, I am not afraid to use the word in referring to a vintage nurse romance) book would have bestowed her with success in the movies, yet still allowed her to choose nursing in the end. The writing was hardly Jane Converse’s best, though the character of Damon Dyer was certainly memorable. While it had some interesting bits, Nurse in Hollywood was not worth memorializing in paint.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Nurse's Masquerade

By Jean Carew (pseud. Jane Corby), ©1964

Never in her nursing career had lovely Cara Merrill received so strange a request. But Brent Butler was so persuasive that she reluctantly agreed to accompany him to the fabulous Butler estate and pretend to be his debutante fiancée. Cara’s real purpose, Brent told her, was to watch over his elderly uncle whose health had been mysteriously failing. Brent was suspicious of his handsome cousin Paul—and when both men declared their love for her, Cara had to make the most important decision of her life!

GRADE: C-

BEST QUOTE:
“When you’re in love, the eyes do get shinier.”

“Seaking of fireworks, you should have seen the display Dad put on when he heard I’d ordered a topless bathing suit!”

“If two people are in love, there’s no use to discuss the pros and cons of the future like a Philadelphia lawyer.”

REVIEW:
Cara Merrill is bored with working as a nurse at a New York City hospital. She’s only 22, and presumably has only been there for a year or two—she’d better get married quick so she can give up her job permanently and become a housewife. In the meantime, however, she’s saved up some money so she can sleep late, go window shopping on Fifth Avenue, and take drives into the country. But the money is running out, and she needs a new job. So she sends a “rather flippant note” in response to an ad in the paper seeking a nurse who is “experienced, blonde, willing to live in the country (large estate).” Why she needs to be blonde is never addressed, but her facetious response surprisingly wins her an interview. Even more surprisingly, though she opens the interview with Brent Butler by scolding him about his unusual ad, he offers her the job. The position entails pretending to be his fiancée and going to stay for a month at Soundings, his Uncle Josh’s Long Island estate, to find out if Josh is being poisoned. Josh hates doctors, so Brent can’t just take Josh to see one, and instead has concocted this scheme to get him medical observation on the sly.

Cara agrees to the plan, and before you know it, she is en route to the estate in a shiny new beige convertible with a huge sapphire on her hand, both courtesy of her faux beau. Cara is to pretend she is a debutante, which means only gussying up her language. “ ‘It’s a …’ Cara began, and stopped. She had been going to say ‘good,’ but remembered her debutante status and changed it for the livelier, ‘a keen custom, I think.’ ” Naturally, everyone in the house is totally fooled, even if she has never played golf or tennis, can’t sail very well, has never left New York, knows way too much about concussions, and wears dungarees and a green and white plaid nylon frock, the very idea of which send shivers down my spine.

Soundings is a large unkempt mansion with “a vaguely sinister air about it,” which seems to stem largely from its color: “Who ever heard of painting a mansion brown?” Uncle Josh has been bound to a wheelchair for years from polio, but is otherwise in good health—except for these attacks in which he feels “squeamish” and appears sallow and drawn, which always seem to come on after dinner. The suspects include Josh’s sister Susan and her nine-year-old daughter Linda, who have just returned to the States from their plantation in Haiti. Brent’s cousin Paul, a “perennial college boy type,” flirts madly with Cara, making Brent look at her with squinty eyes. Diane Forbes, an old pal of Brent’s, is hanging around the house, apparently determined to win Brent for herself, which makes Cara green with envy. There’s a lot of talk about how neither one of them means a whit to the other, but we know differently, don’t we, readers?

When Paul takes Cara sailing one afternoon and they are late returning home, Cara and Brent have a fight on the terrace, and she gives him back the ring and drives back to her Greenwich Village apartment—only to hitch a ride with Brent back again four days later because Josh had asked her to come to the July 4th festivities. Once there, Cara is growing increasingly concerned because Linda has created a voodoo doll of Diane. “Cara stood as if turned to stone. This was no childish whim!” For someone who doesn’t believe in black magic, she sure gets worked up about it. If it were me, I’d be more concerned about how Linda keeps going on about murdering Diane: “I’m going to kill Diane. I hate her!” Instead, Cara dishes out a treacly lecture: “If we want to hurt another person, and if we have evil thoughts about them, we really hurt only ourselves.” But she should be biting her tongue. Linda tosses her Diane doll into the pool, and a few hours later the phone rings—Diane has driven off a bridge into the river! She’s not dead yet, but maybe we can fish that doll out and try stabbing it with Linda’s “machete,” a silver letter opener!

For Linda’s next act, she concocts a potion out of ground beetles, soy sauce, and rum to feed to Uncle Josh to make him well again. The other adults are banished from the library while Linda, wearing a red scarf around her head and a pillow case as a dress, holds a private ceremony with Josh. Cara feels the sense of menace of the estate stronger than ever, and is shivering on the terrace and tearing her handkerchief to shreds while Paul chain smokes, Brent paces, and Susan clasps her hands tightly in her lap. Even the butler is poised at the door, ready to dash inside. What exactly are they afraid of? And if everyone there thinks this is such a terrible idea, why are they allowing the child to go through with it?

Linda’s voodoo works again, but not as she had planned—Uncle Josh drops with a massive heart attack. Cara springs into action, immediately asking the butler to put Josh to bed—apparently the nearby hospital isn’t a suitable option—and donning the uniform and cap she has brought with her. Josh is saved, and the butler gratuitously reveals that Josh’s “well-publicized attitude toward the medical profession was mainly a pose.” Why he would pretend such a thing? The poisoning angle is never mentioned again, and Cara is engaged just pages later, at the Fourth of July fireworks.

It’s a quick read, and not terribly painful, though the loose ends do flap annoyingly. I was somewhat perplexed by all the bizarre relationships that end by passing unremarked. Is jealousy supposed to be the same as love? Is Susan, who has dismissed Cara’s concerns about Linda, to blame for her daughter’s transformation into a (somewhat successful) witch doctor? And what about the voodoo—is it just coincidence, or is it supposed to be real? I’m left with more questions than satisfactory answers on the last page of this book. Really, the best thing about it is the cover—but even this, when we are all but beaten over the head with our heroine’s blonde tresses (they match her car!), leaves you wondering.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

“K”

By Mary Roberts Rinehart, ©1914

GRADE: A

BEST QUOTES:
“As he came down the stairs, Dr. Ed, who had wiped his tiny knife with a bit of cotton,—he hated sterilizing it; it spoiled the edge,—thrust it hastily into his pocket. He had cut boils without boiling anything for a good many years, and no trouble.”

“Women are dangerous only when you think of them as toys.”

“We thought you were dead. There were all sorts of stories. When a year went by—the Titanic had gone down, and nobody knew but what you were on it—we gave up.”

“Across the Street, the Rosenfeld boy had stopped by Dr. Wilson’s car, and was eyeing it with the cool, appraising glance of the street boy whose sole knowledge of machinery has been acquired from the clothes-washer at home.”

REVIEW:
I was a bit surprised to find a copyright date of 1914, which makes this the oldest vintage nurse romance novel I’ve encountered to date—almost a hundred years old. Author Mary Roberts Rinehart actually trained as a nurse, and even married a doctor she’d met during that time, so she clearly knew what she was writing about. But she was primarily a mystery novelist of some renown: She created a character (The Bat) who was one of Bob Kane’s inspirations for Batman, invented the “had-I-but-known” school of mystery writing, was the source of the phrase “the butler did it,” and helped her children establish the publishing company Farrar & Rinehart. So it is an honor to include her book in the genre.

“K” does not disappoint. It is a lovely, gentle story that builds a community on the street where Sidney Page lives. Among the 20 characters you will come to know, there is Dr. Ed and his younger brother, the brilliant surgeon Max; young Joe Drummond, who fruitlessly courts Sidney; and Mrs. McKee’s boarding house, where you can get all your meals for $5 a week. Sidney, her widowed mother, and her aunt Harriet are a genteel yet poverty-stricken family who can only afford one maid. When Harriet decides she is going to move downtown and start an haute couture house, Sidney and her mother are forced to take in a boarder, K. Le Moyne.

It’s clear from the outset that K. is a pseudonym—duh!—and it is slightly annoying that he could not, even to the end of the story, be anointed with more than just an initial. But he is a genuinely likeable and pathetic character, tortured by a tragedy from his past, yet kind and generous to everyone on the Street. He helps get Mr. McKee, who has been “sent up,” placed in a workhouse, thereby earning the family sixty-five cents a day. “As this was exactly sixty-five cents a day more than he was worth to them free, Mrs. Rosenfeld voiced the pious hope that he be kept there forever.” Before long K. is in love with Sidney—which we find out in a sweetly understated way, when K. pulls a cursory note Sidney has left for him from his wallet to show Joe. “Only about the hospital—but Le Moyne had kept the note, treasured it! Joe was not subtle, not even clever; but he was a lover, and he knew the ways of love. The Pages’ roomer was in love with Sidney, whether he knew it or not.”

Joe Drummond is an ordinary boy with a doomed passion for the luminescent Sidney. “As different as smug, satisfied summer from visionary, palpitating spring, he was for her—but she was for all the world.” Sidney is not content to be a wife, however. She decides to go into nursing, though quite a few people on the Street think this is not appropriate: “There’s a good deal in life that a girl need not know—not, at least, until her husband tells her,” Dr. Ed says. In the hospital during her training, she is protected by Dr. Max, who stops by to beam down upon her the radiant glow of a star surgeon on a young nursing student. In return she falls madly in love with him. He is a playboy—or “as crooked as a dog’s hind leg,” as Joe says—with at least one other nurse on a string, but he is taken with Sidney’s freshness and proposes to her. But that’s on page 288, when we’re almost three-quarters through the book. There’s a lot of life, and lives, to be wandered through in the meantime.

Dr. Max eventually runs into K., and it turns out that Max knew K. when he was Dr. Edwardes, an even more brilliant surgeon in Berlin. Max is doing “the Edwardes procedure,” which has been done only a few times before, saving lives and earning himself fame and fortune. Max starts consulting with K on the sly, and “under K.’s direction, Max did marvels. … More than one man or woman who did not know of K.’s existence owed his life to him that fall.” Then there’s a near-fatal shooting, and K. is the only person who can save the patient. “K. was Dr. Edwardes!” Sidney discovers. “Dear K., with his steady eyes and his long surgeon’s fingers!” (Just what is it about surgeons’ hands that fascinates romance writers so?) Surely you can guess where the book is going from here, but you could say the same of Pride and Prejudice; the fun is in the getting there.

“K” is, like many early VNRNs, a book first, and a nurse novel only by happenstance. The characters and their situations are varied and interesting, and the book gently works through all of them, winding their stories together into a rewarding whole. Not everyone has a happy ending, and that makes the book even more gratifying and real. The writing is quiet but delightful, with occasional sparkles like this one: “Little girls in pig-tails, carrying freshly sharpened pencils, went primly toward the school, gathering, comet fashion, a tail of unwilling brothers as they went.” The picture it creates of a small community of intertwined lives in the early 1900s is charming and comfortable, and this book easily earns its place on the bookshelf.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Nurse Paige's Triumph

Teresa Holloway, ©1972

“Tell Navy … Sara … saboteur—” The patient’s words were plain enough, but what did they mean, Paige Hayden wondered? Her father, a retired naval intelligence officer, and his successor, Capt. Hank Davis, thought they knew: “Sara” was the giant U.S. aircraft carrier Saratoga, but what kind of sabotage was planned, by whom, or when, they couldn’t guess. Anyway, the top-secret mystery was none of Paige’s business… Until she found a corpse floating in the river. And then David—Dr. Dave McLaurin, the dedicated young cardiologist she loved—was kidnapped, sending the nurse on an impulsive cross-country flight to trap a traitor…

GRADE: C

BEST QUOTE:
“Next time I’ll greet you in such loungewear slinkiness that you’ll have no thought for broccoli hollandaise.”

REVIEW:
Nurse Paige’s Triumph is actually more of a mystery story than a romance, and includes two kidnappings, a gun in the glove box, theft of a top-secret explosive, and a drowned man fished from the ocean. I have to give the author a little credit for trying to make her book a little bit more than the usual VNRN, but unfortunately it wasn’t done very well, so you know exactly what’s going to happen next, and the mystery itself is so mundane that it’s difficult to care one bit. The reviewer giveth and the reviewer taketh away.

Paige works in the cardiac unit with hot and hunky cardiologist Dr. Dave McLaurin. One rainy evening she’s looking out the hospital window and sees two people struggling in a green Pontiac, one of whom is wearing a white suit. “A white suit? On a day like this?” She’s caring for a new patient who’s had a “stoppage” of his heart. The ID bracelet he wears names him as E. Dyal, and that is what everyone calls him; though he’s awake and alert and chatting with Paige, no one apparently thinks to ask him what his name is or anything about himself. She’s telling E. about her father, retired Navy intelligence, “one of the keenest and most active special agents the country had during the dangerous years after the end of World War II.” Suddenly the man rattles himself. “ ‘Navy. Tell—Navy—Sara—saboteur—’ The whisper, rasping, died in the old man’s throat. The line on the monitor, that thin thread of electronic life, died, too.”

When she gets home, she tells her father about her deceased patient, and he immediately calls two Navy intelligence officers over to the house to hear her story. It turns out there’s this aircraft carrier in the harbor called Saratoga, and some new high-tech explosive device has recently been stolen from the Navy. So the Navy starts working on the case, but Paige always seems to land—inadvertently, of course—in the middle of any actual developments, in between her dates with Dr. Dave. For starters, she’s driving home from work the next evening when she sees a body—wearing a white suit!—floating in the river. So she hops into the water, takes off her polyester pants (I am not kidding), ties them around the body (the white suit is a Navy uniform), and tows it along the embankment until she gets to a place where she can climb out again. Just as she is heaving herself over the rail, along comes a car—“unbelievably, it was Dave.” That’s not the end of the coincidences. He stays with the body while she drives off in Dave’s car to get help, wearing Dave’s raincoat—the body still has her pants—and when she returns, Dave and the dead sailor are gone. Two of the bad guys who tossed the body into the drink were out for a drive when they just happened to come across Dave and their victim and abduct them both.

Back at home, Paige gets a call from a woman working with the bad guys, ordering her to meet them in the parking lot of the hospital with some sodium pentothal. “Why sodium pentothal?” Paige asks herself. It’s an excellent question, but never mind about that, because we’ll never find out, or who the sailor was, or why he was struggling with someone in the Pontiac, or why he was killed, or even what happens to his body. Paige takes Dave’s car to the hospital, and while searching the glove box for a tissue to blow her nose, she finds a .32 instead and stuffs it in her waistband (she’s put on new pants at home). After stealing the “truth serum” from the ED, she is wandering around the parking lot when she bumps into Dave! The kidnappers have sent him out to collect the drug, so she hands it over, along with his doctor’s bag with the pistol now concealed inside. After making out with her, he blithely goes back to the kidnappers’ car. He’s not in league with them, he’s apparently just too dumb to walk away when he has the opportunity. (It isn’t until they take him back to some hospital outbuilding and he finds the pistol in his bag that he encourages them to release him.)

After lots more conversations with Navy and FBI agents, who tell her that E. worked in the laundry room at the hospital, Paige is at the bus station to buy a newspaper when she hears the same woman who called her, in the phone booth saying that she’s taking the bus to Dallas. Has anyone used the word “unbelievable” yet? Paige instantly makes a phone call, but does she contact her friends at the FBI and tell them what bus the woman is on? No, she calls the hospital to leave a message for Dave that she will call him tomorrow, and buys a ticket for the same bus. When the bus finally gets to Dallas, after repeated stops along the way during which Paige is always unable to phone anyone, she instantly loses the woman she is following. But remember, this Paige we’re talking about. “As luck would have it,” we are told, one of the FBI agents she has met literally brushes past her to the phone booth, and she hears another conversation that implicates him in this plot to blow up the Saratoga. This woman has got to start buying lottery tickets.

Back at home (she took a 747), Paige learns that the Navy is in the process of collecting the bad guys, including the traitor FBI agent. She’s on her break at work when it occurs to her that E. would have had a locker in the hospital laundry room, which may be where the missing explosive is hidden. Sure enough, all she has to do is open the locker and there it is! Those FBI agents have nothing on Nurse Paige. She stuffs the explosive—where else?—into her pants, but Paige’s luck suddenly goes sour. One of the bad guys happens to arrive just as she is walking out of the laundry, grabs her, relieves her of the rest of E.’s stuff, and locks her in a room in the basement. Unbelievably—there’s that word again—she is rescued minutes later by Dr. Dave and two FBI agents who just happened to be at the hospital when she didn’t come back from her break. She and Dave fall into each other’s arms, and the world is safe for young love and aircraft carriers again.

The coincidences just never stop with this book, and they’re so bizarre that even the characters notice; Dave sums up just a small selection of them at the end: “By a strange coincidence, Paige is there when Dyal tries to square himself with his God and his country. Then she’s at the window when the poor sailor tries to free himself of he-knows-not-what conspiracy.” The plot is totally unbelievable, but not so outrageously that you get to have a good laugh at it, except possibly for the scene where she has found a body floating in the ocean and tied it to her waist using her pants. The sabotage scenario is so removed from the story that it never really concerned me. Should I really care about this aircraft carrier? Even the romance aspect of the plot barely caused more than a riffle. Her relationship with Dave seems to be progressing swimmingly throughout the story, and the only hiccups are her insecurities—does he really love her?—and the little fight they have at the end of the book when he unexpectedly decides to join the Navy. But no worries, he gets to stay right at the same hospital where he’s always worked. It’s just not a book that elevates the pulse or the interest, for better or for worse.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Nurses Dormitory

By Alice Brennan, ©1962

“Is it wrong to marry for money?” asked Nurse Miller. “Is it wrong to resent your mother because she is a glamorous movie star?” asked Nurse Gray. “Is it wrong to love the boy next door who thinks of you as a kid sister?” asked Nurse Leighton. Nurses Dormitory is an unusually warm story of the lives of three young nurses and the men they fall in love with. Told against the backdrop of the wards, corridors and operating rooms of a big city hospital, there is an authentic insight into the scene behind the scenes and every character is as real as a favorite friend.

GRADE: B+

BEST QUOTES:
“Gosh, Lita, with your looks and figure, why on earth did you ever want to become a nurse?”

“Work may be enough for a man. It isn’t enough for a woman. A woman needs a man to look after her; to hold her hand in the darkness; to be there! Without a man she’s not quite complete!”

“The three of us. We should write a book!”

“Wear kiss-proof lipstick, Veronica. There might be a bit of necking on the evening’s schedule.”

REVIEW:
When I picked up this book, I was concerned that it might not be a real vintage nurse romance novel. This is the first book I’ve read that details the lives of more than one heroine, and with the cover lines advertising that they love “the wrong men,” perhaps the requisite happy endings would escape the grasp of one or more of the ladies. Is Gone with the Wind not a romance because in the end Scarlett doesn’t have Rhett, just a stubborn determination to win him back? Well, I’ll think about that tomorrow.

Today I turn my attention to Lita Gray, whose mother is a movie star; Susie Miller, one of six children raised in a poor family who strives to find herself a wealthy man; and Veronica Leighton, whose crush from the age of 12, now-Dr. John Sernian, still sees her as the gangly pre-teen she once was. The advantage of having three heroines is that their stories are pretty well encapsulated in that one sentence. There are, of course, a few guys to add to the mix: Mark Brandel is a pediatric surgeon who is angry and short with the staff. His wife and three-year-old son were killed in a car accident five years ago, and he continues to beat himself up because he could not save them. He avenges their deaths by pulling out every stop in his attempts to save the lives of every child wheeled in through the doors of St. Jo’s Hospital. He seems charmed by Lita, who has also built a wall around herself as a defense against shallow people who can’t care for her: “She’d been so sick of useless, bored people lapping up excitement the way a cat laps up cream. Of no real importance to anyone except themselves. Concerned only with themselves. She’d craved a reason for being. An importance to her life. To her mind nursing had supplied that reason. It continued to supply it.”

For Susie we have Veronica’s brother, Doug, who comes to town and sweeps Susie off her money-grubbing feet. This is a big blow for her, and she spends a lot of time battling with herself and Doug about how awful it would be to be poor, even if you are happy, versus marrying for love. “If you’re left $100,000 or so, why, ask me to marry you again,” she tells Doug. “But until then, the answer is no … no … no!” And to think that you’re scarcely considered rich these days if you have a million dollars.

The main story centers around the hospital’s chief administrator, Larson Payne, who is intent on boosting hospital profits at the expense of the poor “ward” patients. Naturally, between his gruff manner and his propensity for giving his patients every possible medical treatment, Dr. Brandel quickly runs afoul of him. He has defenders on the hospital staff, including Dr. John Sernian, who go to bat for him, but Larson Payne retaliates by cutting medicine quotas for ward patients in half—which means that at mid-month there is no more oxygen, medicine, or blood products for those patients. Even if Dr. Brandel is gruff, you come to like and pity him, and he clearly has his heart in the right place when it comes to his patients. But you know something bad is going to happen, and all Dr. Brandel’s patients are children, so the build-up to the final gun battle at the corral felt real to me.

The writing is cute, though it does tend toward the mildly self-conscious. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. For example, I give you this: “Night is the time of rest, when after a day’s work, you can stretch your weary, aching bones across your own bed, close your eyes and be alone.” Readers more cynical than I am might raise a brow, but for me it worked more than not. And while two of our ladies do come out engaged on the other side, one remains Scarlet-esque, waiting hopefully for her beau to come around. He’s expressed interest, though, so we know it’s just a matter of time. I was pleasantly surprised by this book, and I looked forward to coming back to it when I put it down at bedtime. Don’t be put off by the homely cover; give this book a chance.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Conflict for Nurse Elsa

By Jeanne Bowman
(pseud. Peggy O'More Blocklinger), ©1968

Nurse Elsa Hoyt signed on for a temporary stand-by assignment at Port Haven Hospital during her brief vacation in the Southwest. Port Haven had been the scene of many childhood memories, including those of handsome Albert Staffner and those of Dr. Paul Hoag, the stepfather who had broken her mother’s heart. When Elsa discovered that the very same Paul Hoag was the chief of staff of Port Haven, she was tempted to resign immediately. But her stepfather begged her to stay, explaining that he needed her, but not explaining why. Puzzled by his behavior and confronted with the hostility of now Dr. Albert Staffner, Elsa began to suspect a conspiracy against her stepfather. Faced with a decision whether to return to Chicago and to her fiancé or to stay in Port Haven, Elsa was frightened of what she might learn … and uncertain if she really wanted to. It took the chaos of a full-scale Texas hurricane to resolve the chaos in Elsa’s life.

GRADE: F

BEST QUOTES:
“Once they were married, her metabolism could change and she blow up sky high.”

“I am Hoyt, of Chicago.”

REVIEW:
If you are curious to know just exactly how low a publisher could stoop at the height of the nurse novel craze in an attempt to make a buck, speed directly to this book. You will, however, be sorry; this publisher ducked really, really low.

Elsa Hoyt is one of about 25 people you will meet in as many pages. But you’re stuck with her through the entire book. She has accompanied a patient from Chicago to Florida, and while there, a physician convinces her to answer the call for nurses from a short-handed hospital in Port Haven, Texas. She used to live there, and her ex-stepfather was a doctor at that same hospital. She doesn’t want to see Dr. Hoag, though he raised her from toddler age, because his marriage to her mother broke up for a reason unknown to her when she was in college. But surely everyone she ever knew from Port Haven would have left town by now, right?

Naturally, the first person she bumps into in the hallway after inking the contract is Dr. Paul Hastings Hoag. He says, “I know how you feel, Elsa, but don’t go away. We need you here. I need you—daughter.” She answers, and I am not kidding, “Atmosphere.” He responds by giving her the keys to his beach cottage, which she says she will rent from him, so no one will know their relationship. What? you may be asking yourself. I asked myself that very question many, many times. But there is no answer. This book is just that loopy.

She hasn’t seen the man since the divorce, but now she decides that she has to get to the bottom of why her mother left him. Then she is shocked to see a nurse in a miniskirt; she’s told that Mitzi can do anything she wants because she has an in at the hospital. Everyone lives in fear Mitzi will “explode and blow us all up,” another nurse tells Elsa, who immediately thinks, “Without there being powder, there could be no explosion. What was wrong here at Port Haven Hospital?” Huh? Well, never mind how she does it, but based on a cranky nurse in a miniskirt, Elsa figures out there’s a conspiracy against Dr. Hoag at the hospital. “What? Would she learn? Did she want to know?” Do we want to know? Not if we know what’s good for us.

Elsa naturally proves herself a godsend at the hospital, which is constantly receiving victims of carbon monoxide poisonings, hepatitis outbreaks, car wrecks, and house fires. For example, after the victims of a multi-car pileup are brought to the hospital, it falls to Elsa to tell the chick from Southern California that her husband, “Hominy the Hippy,” has died, because she’s the only one there who can speak jive: “Let’s say he had a date with Destiny. He didn’t really relate to this groovy world. Let’s say he left you a fine young son to see you through, then took off to another dimension.” The girl sighs, and Elsa leaves her sleeping peacefully. You’ve just got to know how to talk to these people.

For the bulk of the book, Elsa is either pacing the floors of her cottage asking herself what is going on at the hospital, reassembling victims of bloody accidents, or going on about how desperately she needs some rest. Well, to be fair, there are a few other bizarre events. Elsa finds a half-empty whisky bottle in the cupboard that wasn’t there yesterday and assumes someone has broken in to the cottage to read her mail, so she changes the locks and gets a post office box. If you’re snooping in someone’s house, why would you leave whisky in the cupboard? The young son of a neighbor eats diet pills containing digitalis left by an anonymous Port Haven doctor and is saved by Elsa and Dr. Hoag. Elsa later decides this was a plot to discredit Dr. Hoag because the pills weren’t approved by Port Haven Hospital. Is this woman psychic or a paranoid schizophrenic? It doesn’t pay to ask yourself these questions, but you just can’t help it.

Mitzi horns her way into the cottage and then throws a party, but on the night of the party a malevolent trinity in the form of Elsa’s fiancé, Elsa’s mother, and Hurricane Hannah arrive. The partygoers, hospital staff mostly, are called in to work, and it turns out that the Port Haven Hospital has had numerous architectural renovations that make it impervious to bad weather, while other local facilities do not hold up as well and are forced to close their doors and send their patients to PHH. This, it turns out, is what was at the root of the evil plot to drive out Dr. Hoag; he was more interested in improving the facilities than in driving up profits. A disagreement over his use of the hospital funds was what broke up the marriage between Elsa’s mother and Dr. Hoag, but now that Hurricane Hannah has proven him right, they walk off arm in arm. Elsa’s fiancé is bewitched by Mitzi, and she and all the other conspirators at the hospital are so unnerved by the tempest that they submit their resignations en masse. Elsa suddenly realizes she’s in love with one of the doctors, the one who broke into her house and cooked her liver on the grill, so now we can close the book. I don’t usually like to give away the endings, but this one was so stupid I just couldn’t help it.

The writing style is almost impressionistic in its vague way of expressing itself and in how each subsequent sentence seems to shoot off in a completely new and bizarre direction. In the first pages, there are two conversations occurring simultaneously, and it’s almost indeterminable who is talking, or what they are talking about. I had no idea what had happened in this first chapter until Elsa explained her arrival at PHH to one of the other nurses. But puzzlement is not an uncommon feeling brought on by this book; you will spend a lot of time early on, reading pages and paragraphs again and again with wrinkled brow, trying to figure out just what the heck is going on. Eventually, though, you get used to its flaky way and just float along, only occasionally rousing yourself to irritation over some especially egregious flaw. Don’t let apathy drag you down. Conflict for Nurse Elsa is a flaccid excuse for a VNRN, with very little story or common sense. Get angry, and get rid of this book.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Graduate Nurse

Lucy Agnes Hancock, ©1947

Jill Ordway was proud to be a nurse. She threw all her energy, her radiant health, her high courage into making the Kimberly sanatorium a success. Like the owner and Chief of Staff, Dr. Kimberly, she was fired with the dream of a haven for troubled minds and sick bodies—and its great power for good. But gradually, Jill saw that sinister forces were at work, forces led by Sylvia Webster, the wealthy young society girl who was determined to marry the handsome young doctor—if it meant destroying the sanatorium in the process. As Jill watched the town of Westhaven choose sides, she realized it was her duty to act—even if her action meant trouble for herself.

GRADE: A-

BEST QUOTES:
“So you’re the gal who brought Bruce Kimberly back from death’s door intact and set him on the road to life, liberty, and the pursuit of—Sylvia Webster’s idea of happiness.”

“By aiming high we shall certainly reach a greater elevation than if we made our target the nearest blackberry bush.”

“I’m sort of exclusive, darling. I’ll have no other gal’s tears dampening my shoulder except yours.”

REVIEW:
The last book I read of Ms. Hancock’s was Student Nurse, a saccharine, nauseatingly patriotic tale of Nazi spies infiltrating a small town in Indiana. Having covered the student nurse’s life in excessive detail, Ms. Hancock apparently moved on to a student who has finally graduated, but I was not hopeful for any change in her sanctimonious character. I love a good surprise. Graduate Nurse is a well-written, entertaining, engrossing story that has (almost) entirely cleared Ms. Hancock’s reputation with me.

Dr. Bruce Kimberly has just returned from World War II, where he suffered a shrapnel wound in his right arm, and a subsequent infection and sepsis nearly killed him. This was followed by a “nervous collapse” that also took its toll. But devoted Lt. Jill Ordway, R.N., nursed him back to health over many months in her Tunis hospital. Now safely at home, Bruce’s career as a surgeon is in shreds, so he’s decided to open a sanatorium where fellow soldiers can recover their shattered spirits. It’s a “common” problem, he tells his spoiled, beautiful fiancée, Sylvia Webster, who despises Bruce’s “morbid interest in the ailments of derelicts,” as she thinks of psychiatric patients. She is constantly after him to sell out the sanatorium, urging him to forget work and come out and play with her and her friends, and constantly apologizing for her snarky remarks, such as when, right on page 3, she tells him, “Honestly, one would never suspect you of being a cripple.” She’s devious, vapid, and (of course) completely wrong for Bruce, but from the beginning I was smitten, especially after she, “in a smart black suit and furs, stopped her blue roadster at the curb in front of Westhaven’s Y.W.C.A.” She’d gone there to see Jill, who has just returned from overseas and is in town to visit Dr. Bruce. Sylvia accuses Jill of “maudlin sentimentality” when it comes to Bruce—and when she sees Jill at a cocktail party later that day, pretends they’ve never met before.

Jill joins the sanatorium staff despite Sylvia’s enmity, and is soon a huge favorite with both the patients and Ruth Kimberly, Dr. Bruce’s sister and herself an R.N., now serving as chief supervisor of the sanatorium. We spend a lot of time hanging out with Jill and her fellow nurses, who, when they are not working hard to nurse their “neurotic” patients back to health, walk to the nearby pond half a mile away for skating parties—replete with a blazing bonfire, fresh coffee, and lots of other friendly youths—or skiing on a nearby hill, or going on sleigh rides. It really sounds like an idyllic life.

The book’s dramatic tension comes from an undercurrent of concern about the sanatorium’s financial troubles; Sylvia is scheming to get her uncle, who is a cranky millionaire, to buy out—and then close—the sanatorium. And then there’s the ongoing question of whether Bruce is going to wise up and dump Sylvia. He has some odd notions about marriage: “Sometimes he didn’t seem to have the patience with her moods that he used to have, and perhaps marriage was the answer.” Because if you don’t like her before you’re married, a walk down the long aisle will surely solve all that.

Graduate Nurse is such a pleasant trip that it feels like the author forgot she was supposed to be taking us somewhere. The almost summary climax—Jill is attacked by a patient—ends Bruce’s engagement to Sylvia, brings Jill and Bruce together, and also finds a husband for Ruth, in about 10 swift pages, leaving you feeling like your leisurely drive through the country just met up with a tornado. A mysterious endowment is made to the hospital to assist with their financial woes, and though you guess this is associated with the disappearance of a favorite patient for an afternoon, it is never quite explained. And anyway, it doesn’t really matter in the end; Ruth’s fiancé buys the sanatorium’s mortgage, saving them from hostile takeover. But if the ending feels forced and hasty, leaving several loose ends unexplained (how did the patient who attacked Jill know that her real name is Juliet, a question debated by several of the nursing staff?), the book as a whole is such a treat that you can easily forgive it.

2010 VNRN Awards

Welcome to the first annual Vintage Nurse Romance Novel Awards! Winners are chosen from the VNRNs I have read this year, which for 2010 is 50 different books by 36 different authors. May they inspire and guide your own reading in 2011!

BEST BOOKS
1. District Nurse Faith Baldwin, 1932
2. Surf Safari Nurse Jane Converse, 1966
3. Nurse Landon’s Challenge Adelaide Humphries, 1952
4. Nurse Pro Tem Glenna Finley, 1967
5. Wilderness Nurse Marguerite Mooers Marshall, 1949
6. Surgical Call Margaret E.Sangster, 1937
7. The Nurse and the Orderly Florence Stuart, 1964
8. Cover Girl Nurse Patricia Libby, 1963
9. Private Duty Faith Baldwin, 1935
10. Nurse in Crisis Jane Converse, 1966

WORST BOOKS
1. Dr. Merry’s Husband Peggy Gaddis, 1947
2. Jungle Nurse Sharon Heath, 1965
3. Student Nurse Lucy Agnes Hancock, 1944
4. Nurse Kathy Adeline McElfresh, 1956
5. A Nurse for Apple Valley Peggy Gaddis, 1964

BEST COVERS
1. Office Nurse Adelaide Humphries
2. Nurse Landon’s Challenge Adelaide Humphries
3. Nurse Kathy Adeline McElfresh
4. Ring for the Nurse Renée Shann
5. Nurse Marcie’s Island Arlene Hale

WORST COVERS
1. Cruise Ship Nurse Michelle Josephs
2. Nurse in the Shadows Peggy Gaddis
3. Nurse on Trial Jane Converse
4. Courtroom Nurse Fern Shepard
5. Hospital in Kashmir Belinda Dell

BEST QUOTES
1. “You look like a million dollars in government bonds, that is to say, expensive, hard to acquire, extremely valuable but not exhibiting much interest.” Private Duty, Faith Baldwin
2. “Ted needs his job, you know he does. His sister has to have all sorts of expensive treatments if she’s to lick that awful paralysis.” The Nurse and the Orderly, Florence Stuart
3. “Grant’s in the kitchen fixing a hypodermic needle.” Private Duty Nurse, Isabel Cabot
4. “ ‘The reason I hadn’t called you sooner,’ Peter said, ‘was that this epidemic has kept me so busy.’ ” Nurse Landon’s Challenge, Adelaide Humphries
5. “She wanted to kill him. But she was a rotten shot.” Nurse in the Shadows, Peggy Gaddis

BEST AUTHORS
1. Faith Baldwin (A average, based on 2 reviews)
2. Adelaide Humphries (A- average, based on 2 reviews)
3. Jane Converse (B average, based on 5 reviews)

BEST PUBLISHING HOUSES
1. Triangle Books (A average, based on 2 reviews)
2. Pocket Books (B+ average, based on 3 reviews)
4. Bantam (B average, based on 5 reviews)
4. Berkley (B average, based on 3 reviews)
5. Harlequin (B- average, based on 3 reviews)

WORST PUBLISHING HOUSE
1. Dell Candlelight (C+ average, based on 7 reviews)