Monday, December 31, 2007

Author Profile: Eloisa James

I have a confession to make: I don’t remember every book I’ve read.

Even the ones I liked a lot.

I especially don’t remember titles. This doesn’t make me feel too bad because I know a lot of authors don’t get to choose their titles, plus, an awful lot of romance titles are generic or kind of embarrassing. Or both.

You can rest assured that this little quirk of mine really has nothing to do with how much I like an author. In some ways, it’s even an inverse relationship: if I find a new author and read a whole bunch of her books in a short time period, I’m even less likely to remember individual books and titles.

So before I do an author profile, I go to the author’s website and review what I’ve read of her books and decide if I want to do a general profile or talk about specific books. As it happens, I seem to be all caught up with Eloisa James’ backlist, so here goes.

James didn’t get onto my radar until about a year ago, when one of her “Essex Sisters” quartet was displayed prominently enough at my local Borders’ and my to-be-read pile of tried and true authors was dangerously low. Since then, I’ve read everything by her in mixed-up order except for the very most recent ones. For the most part, this hasn’t been an issue, but I admit to needing a couple of chapters before I feel like the cobwebs are cleared away. To prove that I’m not imagining things, James has an introduction of all of the four "Desperate Duchesses" up on her website (you have to register to read it, hence, no link). She lists 4 duchesses: Jemma, Harriet, Poppy, and Isadore. But the first book was about Roberta—not even mentioned--and the second is about Poppy. Jemma is the character that connects them all (presumably… eventually… haven’t seen Isadore yet that I can recall) and reminds me a lot of Esme, a similar character from the first Duchess quartet. Properly speaking, the main character from Desperate Duchesses isn’t a duchess at all. Confusing.

OK, so assuming you are better than I am at keeping all of the players straight and/or are smart enough to read them in order, settle in and enjoy.

Lately, there’s been a trend of writing more from the male point of view, and featuring the heroes more prominently than the heroines. Theory has it that women readers care more about the heroes and are picturing themselves in the heroine role anyway, therefore, the hero’s personality is more important. (I recommend Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women if you like this sort of theorizing.)

James bucks the trend by writing exciting, unusual heroines. Her heroes are entirely up to par, no worries there, but IMO the heroines are really the stars of her shows. When crossed or disappointed by life, they take action whether it is condoned by their society or not. Esme from the first Duchess quartet, and Jemma from the current one, are both considered nearly persona non grata by the reigning grandes dames of the ton; they have affairs, they live without their husbands (at times, anyway) and they make choices that modern day women can relate to, even at the risk of fairly extreme consequences. They have sufficient personal flair and social power to get away with it-- but just barely. They exhibit a public face of confidence and devil-may-care, but as readers, we also see the insecurities and private tragedies that drive them. Again, a better-than-average connection to the modern reader. Helping to make these women appealing is some very snappy dialog. (I often forget to mention it when an author is super at that, because I tend not to notice the quality of the dialog unless it annoys me. Eloisa James: super).

The great thing about these alpha duchesses is that they generally appear in the first book and we get to watch their relationship evolve over all four books. The problem is that sometimes their situation is more interesting than the “main” character of any given book in the series. This is what has scrambled my brain a little with the current An Affair Before Christmas – it picks up right where Desperate Duchesses left off, but it took me awhile to remember which duke was which and who was dueling whom and why.

James mostly writes in the Georgian period, rather than the more common Regency. What’s the diff? you might ask. Fancy clothes, jewels, balls, the ton, intrigue in and out of marriage. Oddly enough, the biggest difference seems to be fashion. James includes a lot of fun details about the clothing of the times, and in fact, a major plot point of Enchanting Pleasures revolves around what modern-day spin artists refer to as a “wardrobe malfunction.” Mention is made of the infamous practice of dampening the chemise, which apparently results in a better view of the wearer’s legs and butt, though how exactly this is accomplished with 4’ wide panniers remains vague to my inner eye. And the vicissitudes of wearing your hair in a powdered, 3' tall pile turns out to have some significance to the relationship challenges in An Affair Before Christmas.

Some of the characterizations of the male leads revolve around their regard for fashion, disregard for fashion, or the panache with which they are able to pull off more outrageous outfits. James may well be the creator of the genre’s first Metrosexual Historical Alpha Heroes.*

Another opportunity offered by this period is the drama of the post-revolutionary French nobility, which constitutes a lovely little subplot in Midnight Pleasures.

Materially speaking, if you are strict about liking mainly Regency historicals, these are likely going to have all the stuff you like with a refreshing lack of de riguer junk about Almack’s, Covent Garden, and Napoleonic PTSD, and with more sexually enlightened (or at least, permissive) attitudes.

James uses her heroines' side interests to weave in interesting tidbits about the era, particularly the state of science and medicine. The women follow Amanda Quick's pattern to a degree, in that they have quirky "unfeminine" interests which help create a layer of character detail and sometimes a plot point or two. James should watch out though; I'm seeing a pattern already of only a couple books where whatever the interest is (foreign languages, naturalism) becomes one of those annoying plot devices where character A is convinced that if character B knew about it, character B would be horrified/disgusted/catapulted "out" of love, so it becomes a secret that must be kept or repressed. I'm not too happy that the women's mothers are frequently portrayed as abrasive, ignorant idiots, either.

A final point that sets James apart from current popular historical authors is that many of her heroines are married at the beginning of the book. Their marriages have not turned out happily ever after, at least not yet. James leads us through marriages that are complicated by issues of the era, yes, but also timeless problems that can challenge any relationship: sexual incompatibility, infidelity, alcholism, jealousy, loss of a child, health problems.

James doesn't offer any silver bullet here. If she has offered any generic marriage advice, it is the familiar refrain: "communicate, communicate, communicate." Hmmm. Maybe it's stock advice for a reason.

_______________
*Wish I could lay claim to this amusing turn of phrase, but James herself alludes to it in some of her "bonus" material for registered readers on her website.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Author Profile: Robyn Carr

You ever have one of those panicky moments when you realize that you are completely out of new books to read? And you have a weekend or a free evening looming, or worse, you are headed to the DMV or out for a quick lunch alone? With no book?

What do you do? If you’re like me, you snag a paperback off the rack at the grocery store or drugstore. You know, the ones where there is a dusty display of about 12 different titles, including a diet book and a religious epiphany or self-help book, 3 or 4 from the best-seller list going back six or eight weeks, and a random assortment of titles and authors you’ve never heard of. Books with untrendy covers – no embossed lettering, no fancy cut-outs. But you grab one anyway, and hope for the best, because even the worst book is better than sitting in line in the DMV with NO book. Even though experience tells you that you’ll probably regret shelling out your 5 to 8 bucks.

It was on just such an occasion that I encountered Down By The River by Robyn Carr. (I read the first trilogy out of order – try to go in order if you can.) Happily, the ending to this particular story is a good one: I discovered a new-to-me author with a substantial backlist to work my way through. Yum.

Carr writes contemporary stories with an old-fashioned feel. They’re set in small towns, typically with some connection to a medical profession (Carr graduated from nursing school before her writing career began). As you progress through the two related trilogies, Virgin River and Grace Valley, you get to see the gradual development of a small-town medical community, from the classic aging-town-doc-who-wants-to-retire-but-can’t, to the build-up of a clinic of respectable capabilities including outreach midwifery and women's health. The clinic serves as a focal point for the 6 books, attracting new blood from out of town, interesting secondary characters in the form of patients, and so on.

Readers looking for extreme escapism might not enjoy these as much as they do, say, jetting-setting through Elizabeth Lowell’s world of international jewel dealers and thieves. Or wheeling and dealing with Jayne Ann Krentz’s corporate moguls. As someone who escaped from grew up in a small rural town, though, I can tell you that the fantasy element is alive and well in Carr’s communities.

Despite a distinct lack of upwardly mobile career paths, the towns harbor a surprising population of eligible hunks—who also have hunky friends willing to relocate. Town benefactors lurk in the wings to grant wishes. Neighbors in need are looked after conscientiously. Women who think they are just passing through end up with good reasons to stay. You see what I mean.

Set in some of the most beautiful geography in North America, the mountains, valleys and lakes of northern California frame Carr’s idyllic little towns with beauty and a certain isolation that plays a part in the lifestyle of her characters as well as the plotting. Conflict centers around relationships: the central romantic one, baggage from characters’ former lives, and the network of friendships spanning the two towns and beyond.

On the sweet-to-steamy scale, these lean sweet, but don’t mistake that for lack of passion. These heroes are no SNAGs—they’re brawny and ripped (lumberjack, anyone?) and territorial and sometimes a little overbearing, but where Carr really shines is showing us their gentle and tender side without making them weak. It’s a tough line to walk, but she succeeds brilliantly.

If some romances are the perfect beach read, I’d say these are the perfect books for a crackling fire, comfy quilt, and BAMoT*.

_________________________________


*Big-Ass Mug of Tea, coinage courtesy of Meera.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Viehl, Part Deux: The Art of Overthinking.

Hold on to your hats, readers, because you are about to get a double-barrelled review, courtesy of myself and O'Donovan. Let us know what you think about the format!

Nicola Sez:
So, last month, Ms. O’Donovan talked about Lynn Viehl’s Darkyn series, and knowing how much our tastes align, I figured I needed to give them a try. So we’re gonna have a little Point-Counterpoint going on.

I think the most important thing about my experience reading these books is that I Could. Not. Stop. Reading them.

Then I came up with a whole list of reasons why I shouldn’t like them.

Except I do. I hate when 1+1 ≠ 2, which is probably why I majored in Engineering instead of Literature in college—I like it when there are Known Facts and Right Answers. With Viehl, a whole bunch of nitpicky little negatives add up to… books I can’t put down…???

Overall, I think that Viehl might just be trying to do too much for the page count she’s got going. Each book includes a new couple’s romance, an ongoing [Pretty] Good Vs. Evil battle, dissention and intrigue in the ranks of both sides (but mostly the Pretty Good side), many and varied psychic talents (shades of Piers Anthony), a continuing research project on the medical nature of vampirism, plus an ever-growing cast of secondary characters to try to keep track of. And these are not especially hefty books.

O’Donovan sez:
You know, I hadn't thought of it in those terms, but when I compare Viehl to, say, J.R. Ward, it's pretty obvious. Ward has a similar running theme -- although, I would argue, slightly less complex -- and her books are approximately twice as long as Viehl's. And the final chapters of Viehl's books always feel slightly like Lucy at the conveyer belt.

Nicola:
Hah! that's a perfect analogy. Agree that Ward's ongoing themes are simpler.

Personally, I think it would’ve been better if the “psychic gift” portion of the program was less individualized, more general. Viehl frequently forays into scenes where the point of view character is experiencing an altered consciousness and the result is generally hazy and confused. I believe that’s what she’s going for, but succeeds a leeettle too well. In the same vein (heh), one of her more deliberate and particularly annoying habits is to introduce a character with some heinous horrible secret which they angst over for far too long, taking the reader past “plot tension,” breezing by “intrigued,” generally landing with a thud somewhere near “get on with it already,” and skirting dangerously close to “I don’t even care any more (ref: John).”

O’Donovan:
I do have a pet peeve with characters who never learn from their mistakes, and there is one recurring character -- John -- who just falls from one problem into another, based entirely on his flawed world view. I'd go a step further: I wish Viehl had killed John off in the first novel, or just eliminated him altogether.

Nicola:
I would wholeheartedly like to see Viehl spend more pages on the relationships than with the holy war. I don’t know if her publisher has an issue with more pages, but certainly compared to other books in on the shelves next to them, she has some room to grow. The men in particular are a little two-dimensional.

O’Donovan:
I can't imagine that her editor or her publisher would take issue with more pages. But I wonder about the editing process and Viehl's unedited writing style -- does it sprawl (thus forcing an editor to suggest she tighten it up? Or is it just this taut, in which case I can say -- from experience, no less -- that it's hard to stretch out what you have to say once you've said it to your own satisfaction.

Nicola:
Speaking of the books sitting next to them, it’s a bit unclear to me whether these belong in the horror section or the romance section. Frankly, as is, I think horror is a better fit. More character, more about the relationships, less on the holy war, and a LOT less of the detailed torture scenes would tilt them more toward romance and put it way firmer into my unqualified “read this” category.

O’Donovan: Romance has a bigger audience and there's been such a trend (now waning, they say) toward paranormal stories that a lot of stuff that would normally be set on the fantasy or horror shelves is getting the "oh, it's by a woman, there's a love story, it's a romance" treatment, even though it might arguably fit the horror genre better than writers like Laurell K. Hamilton, frex.

Nicola:
The erotic scenes are another case of things not adding up for me. Or of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Or something. I once read some commentary on The Story of O postulating that the genius of Rheage’s eroticism is that it manipulates the reader into arousal layered with dismay or outright disgust, at both the violence of the written scene and his own reaction to it. Not unlike Andy Kaufmann’s approach to “performance art,” or what the rest of the world thought of as somewhat questionable comedy. In his words: “They say, 'Oh wow, Andy Kaufman, he's a really funny guy.' But I'm not trying to be funny. I just want to play with their heads." In other words, the audience’s reaction is part of the performance, part of the art.

Now, I don’t know if Viehl had any such lofty purpose. But I find myself thinking about it, because when I analyze the love scenes, I don’t like ‘em. But when I read them, well, I do. I totally do. Somehow. Even though it doesn’t add up.

O’Donovan: Interesting. This is the part where I go on a tangent. First: I used to own a copy of Letters to Penthouse IV -- long lost to the mists of time. Second: I recently purchased three books that were dubbed "erotica" by the mainstream romance market and thought, eh, probably there's some steamy sex and earthy language, but whatever. Um, no. The pages almost scorched my hands, in a way that LtoPIV never did. All of which is to say that I think romance editors are starting to publish a lot of stuff that pushes the market's traditional boundaries, and I wonder whether an editor whose instinct might be to ask an author to rework a sex scene would, instead, let it slide because s/he is trying to adjust to the "new" erotica trend. Still, yeah, when Nic was reading book 2, the exact text of my e-mail was: "There's also (depending on how you view such things) what is either an extremely hot or extremely disturbing sex scene that clocks in as one of the most memorable of the series. (And that's all I'll say, for fear of spoilage.)"

Nicola:
OK, so let me be clear: I’m OK with scorching hot. I think what I’m trying to say is that there are some scenes here that are intellectual turn-offs, but yet still, whew, very hot. Errr, that is, if “intellectual” is a word that can be applied to a love scene between two vampires.

Other things that are great and fun include the cast of characters, the mythology of Viehl’s particular vampiric universe, and the way she works familiar threads of legend and history together. There are a couple of surprises along the way that will either fill you with delight at the cleverness or cause you to sprain an eyeball with the rolling. Normally I would do some discussion of the character development, but O’Donovan covered it pretty well, and I can’t disagree. (Well, I could. But I don’t. You know what I mean.)

It’s hard to make a recommendation here. If you have a weak stomach, I’d say stay away for sure—some of the torture scenes were really not my grande latte at all. If you like the vampire genre, edgy erotica, and quirky flambouyant characters, give them a try. If you’re on the fence, give them a try—they might surprise you. Or tell you something interesting about your own reactions.

Frankly, if you've made it this far into the review, you're probably interested enough to like the series.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

An Oldie But a Goodie -- Captive Passions by Fern Michaels



To me, this is THE definitive romance novel. It has everything: pirates, conspiracy, smugglers, vengeance, psychotic villains, native island princesses, treasure maps, an intrepid cabin boy, implausible plot twists, a double life for the heroine, and of course, the handsome hero and some seriously steamy sex.

Originally published in 1977, I came across this book in the mid-80's on a recommendation from my college roommate. It's the book I recommend to people if they've never read genre romance before: completely over the top, politically incorrect, purple, lurid. No review could be accurate without the inclusion of the word "rollicking" in some form. The thing I love the most about it is that it doesn't take itself seriously. It's almost a parody of itself, as though it were written on a dare and succeeded wildly just to spite critics. I would love to include a sample snip for you but my copy has gone AWOL, probably because I've loaned it out many times. Amazon will let you read a few pages, though.

I mentioned the madonna/whore dilemma in an earlier post, and nowhere is it done more dramatically and less subtley than in Captive Passions. For <plot device> reasons, when she arrives at the island home of her husband-to-be, Serena decides to pose as a very religious, devout woman who spends long periods of time in seclusion. During those times, she sneaks out on her pirate ship and wreaks havoc on the high seas as The Sea Siren. C'mon, does it get any better than that??

It's been reprinted. You have no excuse. If you love romance, you need to read this book.

Now, Fern Michaels is still in the writing business. Sadly, I haven't really enjoyed much of her stuff outside the Captive series. The Texas, Vegas, and Sins books which immediately followed seemed a bit overly influenced by the 80's TV shows Dallas and Dynasty. Recently it seems mostly to be "women's fiction" more than romance. Every now and then I pick one up and try again but they have never really "captured" that sense of fun and wild abandon from the Captive books, or maybe I just don't care for her contemporary voice. Although I have no substantiation, least of all from any published biographical material, I once heard a rumor that the original "Fern Michaels" was a team of two women, both of whose husbands were named Michael. I've always wondered if the Captive series was a collaboration, and subsequent books the work of the slightly less humor-blessed half. Pure speculation on my part, but it would explain a lot.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Rhett Butler’s People , by Donald McCaig

OK, quick show of hands: Who thought this book would focus a *little* bit on Rhett and Scarlett’s relationship?

Yeah, me too. It doesn’t, though. So I’m trying to decide if that’s a bad thing.

It started off very promisingly. Although it’s been quite a few years since the last time I read GWTW, when I think about Rhett’s character, I think about a man who is waiting for his true love to grow up and understand what’s right in front of her. A man who never shows weakness and hides his fears and hurts behind sarcasm and wisecracks. A man who loves the beauty of the antebellum Southern aristocracy but sees its darknesses without illusion. But Mitchell never shows us what’s going on inside Rhett’s head except by way of what he says and does in front of her point-of-view characters, mainly (if not exclusively) Scarlett.

So a chance to understand the making of this man, if you will, this iconic Alpha Hero-- well, what lover of romance could resist? Rhett Butler’s People started off, not surprisingly, with the story of his youth, his family, his father, sister, and school friends. Belle Watling plays a surprisingly central and complex role. The book is structured roughly the same way as GWTW: Antebellum, The War, and The Reconstruction. So once we hit his first meeting with Scarlett at Twelve Oaks, I rather expected the story to twine more closely with hers and the original.

Instead, there was a bulk of material about Rhett’s sister Rosemary and a handful of other characters. Details about the blockade-running that Rhett was famous for, scenes from soldiers’ points of view and so on were interesting and well done. Well, OK, the title is not “Rhett Butler;” it’s “Rhett Butler’s People.” So I tried to keep an open mind. I bought the damn hardback; maybe I will read it again and try to think of Rosemary as the main character and not Rhett.

But try as I might, I couldn’t stop wanting this story to be a retelling of the 20th century’s greatest fictional romance from an alternate point of view. Sometimes it seemed like it was trying to be. Most of the time it didn’t. It suffers a lack of focus for the switching around between Rosemary, Rhett, Charlotte, Belle, Belle’s son, Melanie, and various others. Frequent point of view switches to minor characters further confused and diluted the power of this story. More unforgiveably, the relationship between Scarlett and Rhett is reduced to platitudes and a superficiality measured in microns. A snip from the scene where he first sees her:

Rhett’s eyes fell on a very young woman in a green dancing frock and his heart surged. “Dear God,” he whispered.

She wasn’t a great beauty: her chin was pointed and her jaw had too much strength. She was fashionably pale—ladies never exposed their skin to the brutal sun—and unusually animated. As Rhett watched, she touched a young buck’s arm both intimately and carelessly.

When the girl felt Rhett’s gaze she looked up. For one scorching second, her puzzled green eyes met his black eyes before she tossed her head dismissively and resumed her flirtation.

Forgotten the looming War. Forgotten the devastation he expected. Hope welled up in Rhett Butler like a healing spring. “My God.” Rhett moistened dry lips. “She’s just like me!”


Yuck. And totally out of character for both Micthell's Rhett and this one, I thought.

Did you believe Rhett when he said, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” ? Did you want to know what happens “tomorrow, at Tara”? I did. I do.

In this version of events, I will say that I liked the way Ashley’s story resolved. I liked the way Belle’s story resolved. I liked the story around Belle’s son, Taz, and I wouldn’t mind reading his story next.

Scarlett and Rhett though, got short shrift, IMO. The final section, a scant 4 or 5 chapters after Scarlett returns to Tara, contains a disappointingly artificial Big Final Conflict with one of Rhett’s old enemies and an almost entirely out-of-character Scarlett, leading to a wholly unbelievable ending (I’m dying to spoiler this but I’m restraining myself).

Overall, a story with good potential but ultimately disappointing. GWTW is an awfully tough act to follow though, so I give Donald McCaig kudos for the attempt, and for building Rhett’s biography.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Nora Roberts!

Because how can you blog about romance without mentioning the genre's current powerhouse?

NR is one of those authors that most people either love or hate. For some, she exemplifies everything that's wrong with the genre. Her stories are formulaic. They are predictable.

However. She's a great writer and a great storyteller. She plays the English language like a virtuouso; it never intrudes on you with, um, say, awkwardity, or anything like that. The pacing moves you through the book even if it's 1 in the morning and you have an early meeting at work the next day and you know better. And if you like TEH CREEPY, she does well enough to have you checking the locks on the doors and maybe laying down some salt across the threshhold, too.

But what about characters? The Nicola O. #1 requirement for a good romance read?

Well, generally I give her an A- to B+ on characters. I have read the criticism that she's formulaic here too, and I can't completely disagree. But I am a fair-weather friend of romance characters. I love them and I leave them when the book ends. In some ways I don't mind meeting slightly different versions of the same women multiple times, if they are women I like in the first place. I tend to connect with Roberts' characters; they crackle with believability even when they're casting spells or manifesting demons or slaying vampires or whatever.

The Morrigan's Cross trilogy last year was something of a problem for me.... because I had managed to resist the whole vampire trend in its entirety until then. Heck, I never even watched Buffy. Not once. (Sarah Michelle Gellar will always be the young Kendall Hart to me). NOW, I can't get enough of JR Ward and Christine Warren and Marjorie Liu. (see earlier post). I haven't really gotten into Feehan or LK Hamilton, but I haven't ruled them out.... and I guess turnabout is fair play and Lynn Viehl is next on my vampire booklist. I loved that one of the main characters in last year's NR trilogy was a vampire, and struggled with his nature. I know, I know, classic vampire story, but it was cool to see it in a romance setting. And his romance did not resolve in the way I thought it would </coy non-spoilerish reference> . More generally, being the bookish scholarly type myself, I like that that the bookish, scholarly characters get just as much respect--and hot monkey sex-- as the jocks.

I just finished Blood Brothers and I have to say, Roberts has done better. It's still a good story and I will still be reading the rest of the trilogy when it comes out (months and months from now, dammit). But the secondary characters fall pretty short of the mark; their personalities and their relationships with the main protagonists are only superficially developed. Of course, we'll get that in the next two books, but usually things click a little better in the first book.

What I don't like about these trilogies, particularly the recent paranormals, is that they aren't complete books. Each trilogy really should be a single book. I don't know if the industry is to blame for this or if it's just the best way to maximize revenues, but the paranormal story arcs don't even pretend to be complete or standalone any more. Book One is a an unapologetic prelude. Book Three will be the Apocolyptic Conflict of Good Vs. Evil, and Book Two will build up to it with increasingly dire skirmishes. The most disappointing thing to me about Blood Brothers was a scene near the end that really could've been pulled straight out of Morrigan's Cross with nothing but the names changed.

If you already know you don't like Nora Roberts, then nothing about her recent offerings will change your mind. If you're on the fence, I think the Chesapeake Bay trilogy+1 is about the best of her work. As for Blood Brothers, my best advice would be to wait until the 3rd one is out and read them all together.

Just a post to say ...

Listen to Nicola.

She has been nagging me to read (or, actually, re-read) Juliet Marillier's Sevenwaters trilogy for months now.

Eh, I said. Eh. I don't feel like it. Eh. You're not the boss of me.

But, lacking a fresh book on Monday night, I picked up Daughter of the Forest and read it in every spare moment (and a few that weren't -- technically -- spare). Now I'm on Son of the Shadows and I'm good and hooked.

Of course, last time I got this far, I stalled out on the final book, Child of the Prophecy, so we'll see what happens. But sometime next week you can expect a thorough review with -- I'm sure -- input from Ms. O.

But my point is sound: When Nicola tells you to read something, do it.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Lynn Viehl's Darkyn Books

O'Donovan here, at 11:30 on a Saturday night. Until two minutes ago, I was snuggled in my super girly bed, under a lace coverlet and down comforter, propped up on a stack of soft pillows.

And now my feet are cold and I'm squinting (because I left my glasses on the night stand), down in my chilly office. At 11:30 p.m. On a Saturday. Did I mention that part?

But here's why: I just finished the most recent of Lynn Viehl's Darkyn novels and I have got to talk about them. Now. I just have to tell someone. And Nicola said I could tell you, because she's sweet and generous like that.

A little history: I'm a sucker for vampire romance. Er, pun not intended, but left there like a landmine, anyway.

I tend to come at it from a fantasy perspective -- I was an early adopter of Anne Bishop's Dark Jewels books, and I liked Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake books back when they were horror and not straight-up erotica. I think Robin McKinley's Sunshine is one of the most perfect books ever written. And I can even get over my abiding distaste for J.R. Ward's dialogue because her plotting and characters are just so stellar.

So it's not really clear to me how I picked up Viehl's If Angels Burn a few years ago, read it, said, "Meh," stuck it on my shelf and forgot about it.

About six months ago, I was jonesing for something to read in the middle of the night and I decided to reread it. Wowza. It hardly seemed like the same book.

Because here's the thing: I love strong-willed, smart, sexy heroines.

Not "strong-willed," like "willful brats in need of a good spanking," which is usually what we get in straight romance.

Not "smart" like "totally independent and cool until the hero comes into her life, at which point she concedes all decisions and control."

Not "sexy" like "heaving bosom/pouting lips/budding flower of her womanhood."

Nope, I'm talking about girls like me -- or like the me I wish I were and, at my best, am. The kind who have a little problem with authority (not for sheer orneriness but because their respect has to be earned). The kind whose brains are always, always ticking. The kind who have really complicated, interesting sexual relationships.

And, lest I forget, the kind for whom relationships aren't really easy or natural. The kind who tend to see things as a bit of a fight for control, and who have trouble leaning against anything that seems too comfortable.

So I'm digging Lynn Viehl's heroines, because they're warm and likable, but they're a little prickly and you get the idea that their relationships are maybe a little bit of a loving power struggle.

Another thing to love about Viehl: She doesn't build up a character, wave the "I love you/No, I love you" magic wand and then, poof, we assume all is roses and champagne. Instead, she threads characters throughout the books, so the reader gets to check in on beloved friends (yay, Alexandra!) and see what "happily ever after" really looks like. A lot of the time, it looks like an ongoing series of discoveries, compromises and trouble. Plus affection.

Nicola has a firm "no spoilers" rule, so I'm not going to get into the plots too much, but I won't be wrecking any surprises by telling you that Alexandra -- the heroine from If Angels Burn -- is a surgeon who is "infected" with vampirism and is determined to find a cure. It's a fantastic subplot that weaves throughout all of the books, and Alexandra and her guy are sympathetic, fascinating and fun to see.

Now, having read all four of the books back-to-back in a few days, I'm perhaps oversensitive to the one flaw of the series, and that's a certain, specific plot twist that becomes a little predictable toward the end of each book.

But! That's mitigated by the fact that the next book (out in January, I believe) is set up in such a way that the now-predictable plot twist is completely impossible. I know this, because they helpfully put a sample chapter (or, call it what it is, a tiny dose of crack) in the back of Night Lost.

(Oh, and since Night Lost came up, I just want to note that the titles are really stupid after If Angels Burn (which I liked): Private Demon, Dark Need, Night Lost.)

Poor Nicola. When I asked if I could pop in and guest-blather, she couldn't have guessed that I was going to write book-length reviews here. I promise not to do it too often.

Now, go read Lynn Viehl. You'll thank me.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Is It Me? I Don't Think It's Me.

I said in my intro that I might be soft on my favorite authors. But then again, maybe not. Because when they disappoint me, I get *really* disappointed.

Take for example Cross My Heart, from Carly Phillips. Now, I really liked her first few stand-alones (a mis-nomer, since they were trilogies). The Hot Zone trio and the Chandler Brothers delivered the pacing, personality and humor that made her hugely successful, with a little boost from Kelly Ripa's short-lived reading club. But this latest one? The only way I can explain it is if Phillips found it in the bottom of a box of notebooks from her high school sophomore year handwritten on spiral paper with all of the i's dotted with little hearts, and her publisher was holding her dog hostage for a finished manuscript. Seriously, it's pretty bad; like a case study on the old creative writing saw "show, don't tell." These characters are flat and boring; they passively await the plot to happen around them while everything you ever wanted to know about them (and much, much more) is explicated in narrative like this:

Ty was as complex as the things surrounding him were simple. He was a deep man who kept his feelings inside but who gave of himself just by being there. He seemed to sense and show up when she needed him, and he knew when to give her space. Ten years apart and he knew her better than she even knew herself.

And there is more of the same before and after. Blah, blah cliche´ blah cliche´ blah blah.

Then there's the latest from Stephanie Laurens, whom I usually love. I mean, she is absolutely A-list in my book. But A Taste of Innocence really disappointed me. The hero, Charlie, is just too dumb to live: his father had gambled away the family fortune trying to support them, out of his crazy love for his wife. Therefore, Charlie decides to avoid true love at all costs because love=reckless + bad judgement. Yeah, too dumb to live. Meanwhile, the heroine had decided that she would only marry for love. Because that makes tons of sense for the era.

For some reason I also found the rhythm of the prose to be really repetitive, particularly in the love scenes: "paragraph paragraph subject verb supporting clause. Very repeat supporting clause. Supporting clause some more, paragraph paragraph paragraph." Over and over. I'm honestly not one to harp on things like sentence fragments but this happened so many times it was really noticeable and distracting.

I suspect that part of the problem is that the Cynster franchise is just getting old. In the last several books, I had a lot of trouble remembering the Malcom Sinclair thread from book to book, especially since Laurens was alternating Cynsters and Bastion Club books, which never seemed all that distinct from each other anyway, other than the shadowy spymaster of the Bastion books. However, I will say that the big redeemer for this book was in fact, the Malcom Sinclair twist at the end, which I won't spoil but I liked very much.

Lastly, a word about Mary Jo Putney's Marriage Spell. What the heck happened here? It was like Harry Potter meets Lifetime Television For Women. I like paranormals just fine, but I have to believe it just isn't MJP's forte. The magic element was forced and unimaginative, and the heroine was about as exciting as magical oatmeal. The only hook was with the hero's internal struggle-- Putney's signature theme and done far better in the Fallen Angels books.

I'm not giving up on any of these authors, because I know they can write great books. I just hope they get back to it. Soon.

Friday, November 23, 2007

What is it About Vampires?

J.R. Ward. Sherrilyn Kenyon. Christine Feehan. Christine Warren. Early entries in the hot paranormal subgenre, all of these authors (and others) are particularly known for um, plunging into erotic depths that more traditional romance authors have stopped short of.

Is it just that romance readers are ready for hotter and heavier, more erotic love scenes? Or is there something about the paranormal aspects of these not-quite-human guys that releases a psychic taboo?

Certainly the success of Ellora's Cave and the growing section of romantic erotica at Borders' seems to point to the first. But it seems to me that the vampire and were subgenres lend themselves particularly well to a certain kind of really down-and-dirty sex.

For one thing, the fantasy aspect allows the author to eliminate STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and oh yes, unfaithfulness with a wave of the magic word processor. Wow, not even The Pill could do that. That's sexual liberation, baby.

One of the more swoony aspects of Ward's universe is the way her vamps mate for life. When this bond is created, the couple is imbued with a particular scent, which gets stronger when either one is aroused. Talk about marking your territory. I would challenge anyone to read one of these scenes and not get a little hot under the, um, collar. Then of course there's the biting....

Let's see, why does any of that sound familiar? Oh yeah. Horses, dogs... in the worlds that Ward and Warren in particular have created, the heroes are allowed to ignore the niceties of "civilized" lovemaking. There is sweat; there are smells. There is blood. It might be beautiful in a muscular way, but it isn't "pretty" in a delicate-flower way. It is basic, instinctive. Driven.

In a word, animalistic.

So, what's taboo about that? you ask. We're 21st-century women. We're in touch with our sexuality. Sure. But in the 21st century, we also have to deal with safe sex & date rape drugs. There's growing controversy over what constitutes consensuality. And like it or not, there is still a madonna-whore sensibility about most historical romance fiction, if not the contemps as well. There is absolutely still a line in front of, let's call it rougher sex, that most romantic fiction doesn't cross. Sex that's athletic and sweaty. Sex that leaves marks. Men that don't have to ask permission, but never overstep. Women who can submit without being victims. This is the taboo realm that the paranormal subgenre is really pioneering.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Author Profile: Catherine Anderson

I thought I'd start off with an author that isn't exactly unknown, with more than two dozen titles and a number of NYT best sellers, but who may not be quite the household name of say, a Roberts or a Krentz.

Catherine Anderson writes both historicals and contemporaries, usually set in the American West. Her contemps have more than a dash of old-fashioned cowboy flavor, as many of her characters are ranchers or have dealings with animals--horse trainers/racers, veterinarians, etc.

The books that I'm wild about from Ms. Anderson are a subset of her "Kendrick/Coulter" line. The entire line can be called Cinderella stories, where the heroine struggles against some kind of seriously stacked-against-her odds, but the ones I like the best are a handful of titles featuring disabled heroines.

Romances have traditionally featured couples who were beautiful and, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way. Of course, there is always that "fatal flaw," which in most cases is a thinly-disguised virtue, along the lines of answering the job-interview question "What is your greatest flaw?" with "oh gosh, I'm such a workaholic, I really have to be careful to limit myself to no more than 75 hours a week." Or a trait that would be regarded as a horrible drawback for a woman of the times but admired by us more enlightened modern -day readers-- eg, an interest in politics, a flair for finance, etc.

Ms. Anderson takes a bit of a different approach to the "fatal flaw." In My Sunshine, the female lead, Laura, is brain-damaged. Yes, you read that right: "...a head injury [that] impaired her ability to use language and forced her to abandon a brilliant career," is how the back cover describes it. "Brain damage" is how it sounds to me. In Phantom Waltz, Bethany is a wheelchair-bound paraplegic; and in Blue Skies, Carly's romantic storyline is woven together with a roller-coaster ride of a disease that threatens her eyesight.

You might also think that it would be weird for a bunch of related people to all end up with disabled partners-- and you'd be right. Not all of the Kendrick/Coulter stories follow this pattern, so that helps. Those that do, relate back to the first of them in a believable way, I think, by insinuating that the first couple, Bethany and Ryan, paved the way, literally and figuratively, by illustrating that with love (and tons of money), all things are possible. Still, a certain extra measure of suspension of disbelief is needed on this particular account.

On the surface, these are situations and characters that are a bit extreme even by genre standards. But the reason that these work is that they are really just like any other romance: the girl gets her boy, who loves her not just in spite of her flaws, but loves the total person that she is, flaws, disabilities and all. As a side benefit, Anderson offers us a glimpse into the everyday lives of women with physical disabilities and the challenges of creating accessible environments, without making the stories feel like an After School Special on Noble Suffering Martyred Crippled Girls. The characters are fully three-dimensional and while their disabilities inform much of their everyday lives and activities, there is far more to the characters than the disability.

Some analyses of the appeal of fairy tales for children, especially the most gruesome, theorize that, by experiencing their own worst fears (lost in the woods, death of parents, etc) in a safe way-- ie, fictionally, through the characters' experience-- kids get a chance to process their fears on a subconscious level and be reassured that there is always Hope for a happily-ever-after.

I think that Anderson's stories function a little bit like that, at least for me. I'm sure I could think of more horrible fates, given time and perhaps a daily newspaper or two, but I have to tell you that losing my faculty with language, my ability to process information, and my career-- not only the one I have, but *any* career that I can imagine as fulfilling-- is one of my own worst adult fears. And yeah, I know it's fiction, but reading through to Laura's happily-ever-after is still satisfying on that very basic level.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Smile When You Say That

Coincidentally enough, the same week I started this blog, one of the two local free papers ran this article on the romance genre. Although the article is mainly about diversity in romance characters and writers, Mr. Miller employs the usual snarky hooks. In the print version, the teaser page starts off "Between the kitty litter and the toothpaste..." and ends with "A better question is: Why would anyone want to write them?"

Of course, this teaser has nothing to do with the rest of the article. But if you really want to know, Mr. Miller, you might check out
one of my favorite essays about the romance genre. A choice sampling:


Fairy tales, Luthi says, promise the reader a just universe, and so do the genres. Mystery fiction promises a morally just universe, and speculative fiction promises an intellectually just universe, but romance fiction trumps all of these because it makes the greatest promise of all. It says that if you truly open yourself to other people, if you do the hardest thing of all which is to make yourself vulnerable and reach out for love and connection and everything that makes life as a human being worth living, you will be rewarded; it promises, in short, an emotionally just universe.

The author, Jennifer Crusie, is a published and popular romance author and incidently possessed of some rather impressive literary creds.

And if that doesn't give you enough food for thought, Mr. Miller, before you let your disdain bubble over onto the works of an ENTIRE GENRE, you could try something really radical: you could try actually reading one.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Favorite Authors

OK, just a quick overview of some of my current favorite authors:

Contemporary:
Jennifer Crusie
Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Catherine Anderson
Susan Anderson
Kathleen Gilles Seidel
Curtiss Ann Matlock
Deborah Smith-- When Venus Fell is my favorite thus far, tho there are newer ones. Check her out especially if you like southern gothic.
Luanne Rice
Nora Roberts
Jayne Ann Krentz
Robyn Carr -- sweet and gossipy
Sheryl Woods


Historicals:

Christina Dodd
Christina Skye
Loretta Chase
Stephanie Laurens
Bettina Krahn
Lisa Kleypas
Mary Balogh
Mary Jo Putney
Laura Kinsale
Madeline Hunter
Maggie Osborne--pretty much the only westerns I'll read. They're irresistible.

Paranormals:
JR Ward
Marjorie Liu
Christine Warren

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Things to know about me

Huh. So this is a blog. OK.

I could write about a lot of stuff. I have a husband and kids-- an endless source of amusement and other assorted emotions. Or my job-- project manager at an up-and-coming tech co in Seattle (I like it, but my objective is not to bore the internet to death). There's always my own navel; there's a blogger's favorite. But then there's that whole death-by-boredom thing again.

So what I'm going to blog about is romantic fiction. Reviews, and probably the occasional dissertation on the state of the genre. I have a few reviews up on Goodreads here. But that's kind of limiting-- so much of current romance is in short series, trilogies or what have you; it makes sense to review by author or group, I think.

Why should you care what I think about romance? Well, I guess you'll have to read a few reviews to see if I have anything to offer you. I'm a pretty die-hard fan. I read several hundred romances a year; I'm sure if I could remember all the titles going back to the early 80s when I got started on Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers and Bertrice Small, we'd be into the 5-digits.

I like regencies, medivals, contemporaries. I held out against the vampire/were genre for ages but have recently been sucked in (hah! get it?). JR Ward rocks my world.

I used to be very into the civil war era, looking to recapture the magic of Gone With the Wind, but that is an obsession that has faded. I am not such a fan of romantic suspense, especially the psycho-serial-killer flavor. (Karen Robards, I'm lookin' at you.) I almost never read westerns. I think the last time I read a straight-up category romance was 1989-- I need a longer read. Although being une dame d'une age certain, I am fond of the new Harlequin Next line. Although quick reads, they're fun and they're not about 19 year old virgins, so that's a good thing.

So, I read what I like. I'm loyal to my favorite authors to a fault-- you can figure that if I'm already a fan, my review of any individual book in the author's list might be a little skewed-- I will likely be kinder to the occasional clinker from a tried-and-true author than I would for an unknown.

What I look for in a great romance is character. Character, chemistry, character, and a reasonably interesting setting. I pretty much already know how it's going to end, so I'm not such a stickler for plotting, and our options are a bit limited these days with respect to eras and settings, so, as long as it's not out and out annoying on those fronts, it's not going to matter to me much. I want two real live, interesting characters who can't keep their hands and hearts off each other. I want to feel that moment of connection, when their eyes meet and they can't look away. I want them to be smart and brave and admirable and flawed, and I want their happy ending. I don't want the conflict between them to be contrived and to hinge upon stupidity or "but if I tell him/her about X in my past, s/he'll drop me like a hot potato!" Ugghh.

Also--just so you know-- I use a lot of dashes. If that annoys you, you probably want to move on. Buh-bye.

You won't see synopses from me. Go to Amazon or B&N and read the back cover. Anybody can give you that. I'll do my best to keep it spoiler-free so you can enjoy the same books I do. I'm just going to let you know what I thought of it.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

About

last update: 4/11/2013

About Me
I'm a technical project manager in the Seattle area. I spend most of my day working on knotty left-brained problems, so reading, writing about, and discussing fiction is my way of balancing that out with right-brained thought processes. You can find out more about my professional life at my LinkedIn profile.* My name is Nicola Onychuk; if you knew me a long time ago you may remember me as Nicola Aaron.  I had my nose in a book most of the time back then, too.

About This Blog

Alpha Heroes is a labor of love for me. I've been reading romance for an awfully long time now, and I like to think I know a little bit about what makes a good one. I like talking about them. I'm not a professional writer or reviewer; at present I do not take ads and I've stopped bothering with the associate thing for clicks to Amazon.  Everything I post is because it amuses or entertains me to do so, and I hope there are a few people out there who will enjoy it too.

Naughty or Nice?
I started blogging in 2007, but I've been posting on internet forums and bulletin boards since 1995. Over the years I've posted things I've regretted, encountered flame wars, and had my feelings hurt. These days, I have some simple rules about how I self-censor:
  • I won't post anything that would embarrass me if it were read by my mom, my kids, the local PTA, or my employer.
  • I won't say things to or about a person that I wouldn't be willing to say to his or her face. This includes authors, other bloggers, and anyone else.
  • That's it.
Negative Reviews
This question tends to stir a fair amount of controversy in the blog world. I don't have any hard and fast rules beyond what I posted above; however it is true that I tend to prefer posting about books I love. And books that impress me in a particular way. When I do post about something I don't like, I try to explain what it was that I didn't like, and readers can decide whether it's something that would bug them or not. I like to think that my less glowing reviews are kind and respectful, and perhaps constructive for authors. You can find examples of these by clicking on the tag in my label list "didn't like."

Review copies
I have accepted review copies in the past. As of December 2013, I've gone on hiatus for awhile and will focus on reading and reviewing books from my stash, and new books that I purchase.

Misc.
You like the header photo? I'm very proud of it-- I took that shot at a lavender farm in Sequim, WA in 2006. Purty, no?

Template: I do change this up every now and then, but I try to maintain a continuity of look and feel. Currently I'm using a free template from ourblogtemplates.com - I can strongly recommend these for Blogger users, as they're highly customizable using the Blogger interface for colors, fonts and layout without having to go into the HTML code.

Favicon: Free hosting for .ico files seems to come and go.  Currently I'm using IconJ with thanks to  Peter at Blogger Tips and Tricks for very detailed, easy-to-follow directions on where and how to insert the code.

Social Media:
I tweet sometimes here.
There's a Facebook page too.

*I have been regretfully declining most requests for connection at LinkedIn.  Please don't take this personally.  I reserve that network for professional contacts in my field.  Very happy to connect on the channels mentioned here though!


More detailed posts about what I do and how I do it

Weekly Geek's QA on posting style
How I write my reviews
An intro, and the beginning of it all

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