To be enjoyed one at a time, as a bit of a quickie in between other activities.
By day, Catherine Heloise works as a scientific coordinator in a medical research Institute. By night, she sings Bach and Brahms and other composers whose names do not start with B, bakes incessantly, worries about politics, reads as much escapist fiction as she can get her hands on (these two things are related), and writes three blogs — one about food, one about politics, and, most recently, one for short stories inspired by the Paris Metro. She also writes an occasional music blog. Periodically, she wants to review a book, but starting a fifth blog would be ridiculous, so here she is… Authors she loves to read include Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis, Robin McKinley, Laura Florand and Courtney Milan, but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg.
I wish I could say that I bought Fifty Bales of Hay as part of a virtuous attempt to read more Australian authors, but that would be a lie. I bought this book because the title made me laugh, and I felt that any writer who could come up with a title like that deserved my money.
I was vaguely aware of Rachael Treasure [ T | F | I | W ] as a writer of rural romance, but had no other preconceptions. In fact, I didn’t even realise until I had downloaded the book onto my Kobo that it wasn’t a novel at all, but rather a series of short stories featuring rural Australian settings and lots and lots of sex in unexpected locations. (Seriously, there is a LOT of sex in this book. I started making notes on these stories for review purposes and found myself writing things like: Older couple. Sweet. Sex in a dam! Younger couple. Quite cute. Sex on a horse! In a dam! With bondage! Widow and day labourer. Very sweet romance. Frightening amounts of detail about crutching sheep. Sex in a shearer’s sling!)
So yes, the first thing you need to know is that this is really more erotica than romance – if you are fitting twelve short stories into a regular-sized volume, and each of these stories includes a sex scene, that’s an awful lot of sex and also really embarrassing to read on the tram on the way to church. Ahem. And the sex itself is dirty and sweaty and detailed and hot, and frequently kinky, and usually in the outdoors. And sometimes in settings that make me wince and wonder whether that wouldn’t be awfully scratchy.
Speaking of settings, the stories have a very strong sense of place. Treasure lives in rural Tasmania and she knows her farming. You are going to learn a lot about crutching sheep, weighing cattle, grading wool, rodeos, berry farming, and whether or not it is advisable to have sex on a horse. Or a riding mower. And she writes heat very well – not the sexy kind (though, yes, that too), but the relentless, burning heat of an Australian summer. There’s also a lot of very Australian slang and humour in here, and I’m really curious about how this would play to a foreign audience. It’s all pretty current slang (none of this ‘she’ll be apples, mate’ stuff), but I wonder whether overseas readers would enjoy it as local colour or find it unintelligible. In some ways, this is the sort of book that would be fun to recommend to non-Australians, as it certainly has a strong Australian character to it.
There is also a strong thread of humour running through the book, and quite a few references to That Book Which Everyone Is Reading (hint: it rhymes with the title of this one). But several of the stories are quite poignant, and Treasure is adept at packing a fairly strong emotional punch in a remarkably short space of time. (After which everyone moves on to the cheerful boinking, and then we’re in the next story.) They are, I think, intended to be enjoyed one at a time, as a bit of a quickie in between other activities (and there’s a sentence that came out far dirtier than I intended it to!) – reading a whole bunch of them in a row feels really strange and leads to emotional whiplash. I note in the About the Author that Treasure is passionate about encouraging non-readers to read, and I can see these short stories being quite a good entry point (tee hee!) for someone who doesn’t have a lot of time for reading but likes a bit of romance or erotica.
The stories themselves are quite varied, as are the couples which populate (and copulate!) (sorry, this is just getting worse and worse) them. There are several older couples, couples where the woman is older than the man, and couples where both parties are fat and entirely comfortable with that. There are several brand new relationships, but also quite a few stories about rekindling old ones. And there are some that aren’t relationships at all, really, just a bit of fun at a time when it’s needed.
I will say, though, that there are limits to this diversity. It seems a little unfair to mention this when I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if I hadn’t been so taken with the varying ages of the couples, but all the couples in this story are very white and Anglo, which doesn’t seem like the Australia I know, though I realise that rural areas are often less diverse. Everyone in these stories is able-bodied, too, though given that they all work in pretty physically demanding jobs, that’s more excusable. And – and this really did disappoint me – in the one story which mentions gay characters, the gay character is the husband, who is closeted and hiring male prostitutes because he can’t accept his sexuality; and so his wife ends up having an affair with a chap whose wife ran off with another woman. I think that this was a really unfortunate choice on Treasure’s part, particularly as it was the last story in the book. It left me with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.
For me, the individual stories were a bit hit and miss. There were some I liked a lot; The Crutching was really very sweet – a second-chance romance for an older widow and the chap who comes to crutch the sheep for her.
‘I like seeing you. You are very easy on the eye, Mrs Taylor,’ Mervyn said, looking sincerely at her. ‘But it’s not just your beauty. It’s just … you. You. I very much enjoy the company of you.’
I also liked Harvest Moon and Milking Time, which were both stories of couples whose marriages were having difficulties, in the first instance due to the relentless work of farming life, and in the second due both to that and to a husband recovering from prostate cancer. In both cases, by the end of the story, the love between husband and wife is reaffirmed, and we can see the possibility of a new beginning for the relationship. (Also, I now know much more about the artificial insemination of cows. This book is very educational.)
My personal favourite story in the collection is probably Droving Done, in which Kelly (Sparra), who has had her eye on Wayne (Narra) for a while, somewhat deliberately loses a bet to see if it’s actually possible to have sex on a horse. Now, I have absolutely no evidence for this, but when I was 19 or so, I read a Johanna Lindsey novel in which the couple had sex on a galloping horse, which was certainly eye-opening to me at the time and which, as you see, has stayed with me for more than 20 years. Anyway, I like to think that Treasure also read this book, and, being more knowledgeable about horses than I am, was inspired to write what is probably the most hilarious erotica short story that I have ever read.
For the record, Treasure does not, it seems, believe that you can have sex on a galloping horse. Or a horse that is in a dam and determined to swim away from under you.
Also, I completely love the fact that Kelly and Wayne find themselves having this conversation:
Soon the horse and Narra were being swallowed up by the waters and Kelly could feel the coldness of the dam rising up and over the back of Gordon and meeting with her hot sex.
‘Do you reckon this counts as bestiality?’ she said jokingly.
Narra frowned. ‘Jeez. I hadn’t thought of that.’
‘Maybe don’t think of it! It’s a bit of a turn-off.’
Yes, indeed. But you’ll be glad to know that this doesn’t stop them for long.
I was also amused – and a little boggled – by The Joining, which I really don’t know how to describe. I do like the character of Marrilyn, who is pretty much having sex with this random chap while their dogs are breeding outside and thinking, Hmm, actually, this is rather pleasant. Maybe I should do this more often when people come to breed my dogs. It’s the somewhat posh, restrained manner with which she expresses these thoughts to herself that makes it work for me.
There were a handful of stories I didn’t like so much. Cattle Crush was just a miss for me – I didn’t like Tommy or Bronwyn much, and I felt like there was a bit of a dig at people who find sexual harrassment at work problematic. Similarly, Rodeo Clown seemed like a very large dig at city people who just don’t understand farming life because they are too feminist and intellectual and uptight. There was a bit too much of ‘I know what’s good for you’ and ‘uptight and rude city girl finding true meaning in life by bonking a sexy cowboy’ for my taste. But then, I’m an uptight, overly-intellectual, feminist city girl, so perhaps I’m not the target audience for this story…
I also really disliked Showtime Line-Up. To me, Katie’s internal world and way of coping with her family background and loss of her mother made emotional sense (even though boinking one’s way around Australia would not be my own personal preferred method), and I felt like the alleged hero of the story ran roughshod over her for her own good, and was creepy and controlling. The fact that Katie then turned around and went from viewing him as intrusive and unpleasant to thinking of him as the ‘Champion of Kindness’ did not ring true for me, and I found myself really worrying for Katie at the end of the story. It did have some nice lines, though:
Like the conductor of an orchestra, Katie had become a master at guiding the moves and mindsets of the drunken boys. It was kind of like a hobby. She would set up scenarios for them to get into, then sit back and laugh as it unfolded or – in the case of most nights – unravelled. She liked to watch. And she especially liked to watch country boys in boots as they made total wallies of themselves. It was gold.
Truck Wash contains a broken marriage and infidelity, which I think may turn off some readers. It didn’t do much for me, apart from adding to my appreciation of Treasure’s apparently infinite imagination when it comes to employing truck washing equipment for uses it was never intended for. The Ride-On Serviceman had a highly entertaining relationship between prim, proper Edith and her overly-vibrating ride-on mower. Unfortunately, this was also the story with the closeted gay husband, so that was a thumbs down for me, too.
Branded was kind of adorable, with an older heroine and a younger hero who clearly doesn’t know when he’s being stirred by the other workers, though he does know what he wants, and the story has one of the sweeter relationships in this book. And, finally, Fifty Bales of Hay lived up the promise of its title, with a delightfully and unapologetically cranky and premenstrual heroine and a hot, flirty delivery guy who manages to be annoying and sweet at the same time. Though I was a bit worried about where all the hay and the raspberries were going to end up…
I honestly don’t know how to rank this book. Immediately after I read it, I joked to my husband that it was a bit like a box of assorted chocolates – some good, some not to my taste, and some that were kind of full of nuts. The trouble is, the more I reflect on this book, the more uncomfortable I feel about the very last story in it. Without that story, I’d probably be grading it around a C, because while I enjoyed seven of the twelve stories very much, four of them ranged from just OK to actively infuriating. There’s some really good writing in there, which makes me want to read Treasure’s other work. There’s also some stuff I really didn’t like. So a C is about right.
And then I keep coming back to that final story, and I just don’t know what to say. There’s a lot of conversation in the romance community right now around the importance of representation, and one thing I’ve heard a few times is that if you only write a single character from a particular unrepresented class, you may already have a problem, because that character will start to look like he or she is representing all people of that class. And it’s worse if the characters in question fall into an existing stereotype. And I think that’s what has happened here.
I think if you like your erotica flavoured with some exotic Australian colour and inventive use of farming equipment, and don’t mind the occasional chauvinistic hero, this is certainly worth a read. But maybe stop at the end of Branded, and give The Ride-on Serviceman a miss.
Content advisory: Hay in uncomfortable places
You can find an extract of the book here. Published by HarperCollins.