Thursday, December 29, 2011

Thursday Thirteen, Edition 25: Best of 2011

Oh, did you think this would be *my* best-of list?  That would be great, wouldn't it?  But that sounds like a lot of work.  Instead, here are 13 lists from my list of romance bloggers and a few new ones.  Brace yourself, your TBR list is about to get a lot bigger...

  1. Mandy at Smexy Books
  2. Katiebabs
  3. Jen at Fiction Vixen
  4. Samantha at Fiction Vixen
  5. Hilcia at Impressions of a Reader
  6.  Kmont at Lurve a La Mode
  7.  Sharon at Best Romance Stories
  8.  Brie at At Romance Around the Corner 
  9. Janga at Just Janga
  10. Marg at Intrepid Reader (not actually romance, but I'm a Marg fan, so I'm including it anyway) 
  11. Laura and Carol at Book Chick City
  12. Melanie at Barnes and Noble
  13. Amazon's picks

Happy holidays to you and yours!

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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Brick and Mortar and Random Musing

Black Friday at Barnes and Noble
Sigh.  I miss my local Borders. I will try to transfer my affection to the B&N, but... I just don't like it as much.  I don't actually know what Borders did wrong; what buying or inventory or pricing practices drove them out of business, or if it was as simple as being too late to the e-selling game.  I hope that doesn't happen to Barnes and Noble.

But still... it's not the same. At Borders, you could find a terminal and look up a book yourself to see if it was in the store, or which section you could find it in, or search on a title to find the author, or search on the author to find the latest title.  At B&N, you have to ask a store worker to do that.  If you can find one (I grudgingly give them a pass for being busy on Black Friday).

At Borders, my pal Andrea made sure that my favorite authors' new releases were available on release day.  She called me to tell me when they arrived.  I realize that this isn't a Borders standard, and other Borders stores were not as good at the release day thing.  But B&N didn't have the new Ilona Andrews, or if they did, I couldn't find it, and I couldn't find someone to help me find it.  Boo.

On the Bright Side
I'm That Auntie, the one that gets you classics instead of the next Disney Fairy throw-away book.  I really love the B&N classics lines, for kids and adults (although I sort of wish the kids' ones were more standardized).  B&N kids' classics are nicely bound and illustrated and priced less than a mass market paperback-- I bought A Little Princess & The Time Machine for the independent younger readers, and Alice in Wonderland and Frankenstein from the adult series for the older readers.  (But I have a curmudgeonly wish that B&N would standardize their bindings and expand the line.)

In any event, I really want that brick and mortar buying experience.  I like browsing.  I like walking around in stacks of books, picking them up, flipping pages.  I actually want the excuse of leaving my house and going someplace else (preferably some place with coffee and chocolate).  I know I could solve the release-day thing by pre-ordering at Amazon, but sometimes my decisions change on the day-of. If it's a big release day, I might put off one author in favor of another.  I have to be a little budget-conscious, so I can't pre-order every release from every author I like. I waffle, and I kind of enjoy the waffling process-- I don't want it to be too automated.

I will probably get an e-reader sometime in the next year or so.  Maybe this year at Christmas.  There are enough of my favorite authors with early e-pub dates, and some intriguing titles that are e-pub only, that I guess it's unavoidable.  But I think I will have to keep making pilgrimages to whatever brick and mortar stores I can find, for the occasional tactile fix.  Whatever happens in the publishing and e-publishing industries in the next ten or twenty years, I expect I'll swing both ways.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Secrets of a Proper Countess, by Lecia Cornwall - Review

So right off, the opening of this book reminded me of this:
The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game . The man is not "taking" and the woman is not "giving." No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.

— Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (1973)

"Call me whatever you wish, my lady-- Lancelot, or Tristan, or Romeo. anything will do." His eyes burned into hers from behind his mask. "I am at your service, and I will be whatever and whomever you wish me to be tonight."

Isobel stared at him, spellbound. The room wavered and spun, and all she could see was him, all she could feel was the heat from his eyes, his body. She was melting with desire. Surely she was dreaming. She would wake up in her widow's weeds at Maitland House and realize she'd imagined the whole encounter.

(I'm also tempted to run a quote from a Billy Joel lyric here -- you know the one-- but I decided that would be over the top).

One of the recurring threads in the romance genre is the anonymous encounter, and in historicals, the masquerade is quite popular.  I think I have at least three books within reach right now that employ it.  The adrenaline, the headlong topple into hormonal bliss without all the messy emotional and pragmatic entanglements that inevitably surround an affair--very tempting indeed. The stuff of fantasies, and in some ways, it's a metaphor for why we read romance at all:

The feeling of falling in love is something we want to experience again, and I think readers can do that safely in a book... without giving up the love we have.  -- Julia London, as interviewed by Sarah Wendell
However, messy entanglements make for interesting reading, and like Erica Jong's character, Isobel Maitland doesn't get her zipless fuck either.  She knows that rake under the mask, and her infatuation turns into full-on passion; and while "Lancelot" doesn't know her name, he can't forget her.

Plot and Context
The suspense/mystery plot that draws them together in an ancillary way is deftly woven into each encounter.  I can't say it's the most original mystery ever to bring a widowed countess and a playboy marquess together, and when I first read the blurb and some of the introductory background I was a bit skeptical:
Lady Isobel Maitland cannot afford to be caught doing anything even remotely scandalous, or she risks losing everything she holds dear...

There were strict rules governing her behavior, carefully noted in her husband's will, and enforced by her mother-in-law.

But as I read on, Cornwall constructed a believable and slightly horrifying context. I think it's easy to forget, as a modern reader, how restrictive life could be for women in those times. There are plenty of stories that play fast and loose with these strictures, that set up their protagonists as triumphing over a value set that is not the same as the readers'. This is a story that doesn't let you forget how simple a matter it was in those days to place a woman completely at the mercy of others, who control her financially and through the fate of her son. In her mother-in-law's household, Isobel is surrounded by enemies and spies, and the least wrong step will see her married undesireably or exiled to a remote estate without her son, or possibly worse yet. She is not even permitted to manage her son's education or free time-- this all falls under the jurisdiction of her brother-in-law.

Chemistry and Characters
Isobel is no Mary Sue though, and I loved the way she went after what she wanted. The heat between the protagonists is very hot:
Yasmina. That's all he had, a made-up name. He shook his head, still dumbfounded and searched the dark pavilion for his coat and his cloak. He wasn't usually so easily distracted when he had work to do, but she had been exceptionally diverting.

He found his garments easily, but the telltale buttons took longer. A gardener or guest who found one button would hardly remark upon it.  A scattering of six buttons in such a secluded place screamed scandal.  Phineas Archer was an expert at avoiding scandal.

Unless, of course, he wished to be caught.

He found the buttons and pushed them into his pocket. He pulled his cloak over his gaping breeches and turned to go, and almost tripped over something. It skittered away to hit the wall with a soft chime. He picked it up and carried it into the light. It was the lady's shoe, delicate and encrusted with pearls and embroidery, with a curled-up toe that was hung with a little bell.

Now, see, that's not even the love scene, that's the aftermath. Isn't it wonderful? Some might find the Cinderella touch a little bit of an eyeroll, but I have to say that I loved it.

So the villains in Secrets are a bit over the top, the usual corpulent, scruple-less, crass, grasping, opposite-of-hero types, but overall Cornwall puts together a nice fabric of secondary characters with just the right amount of complexity to keep the plot interesting on a number of levels.

Bottom Line
I really enjoyed this debut; it has all the right ingredients for a satisfying regency: likeable, lively characters with emotional chemistry, heat, and just the right touch of humor; adept ebb and flow of plot and sexual tension; and an effortless command of voice and language and period that's easy to overlook when it's done right. If you've missed this title, I recommend you check it out, and I'm looking forward to The Price of Pleasure, due out in January.

Around the Blogosphere
At Dear Author - not actually a review, but a nice behind-the-scenes tidbit.
The Romance Dish Also not a review, but an entertaining day-in-the-life essay
Romance Addict
Kay's Blog
Love Romances and More
Tracy at Book Binge
Romance Reviews by Alice

(I must say, either Ms. Cornwall's publicist is exceptional or the word of mouth on this title is really a snowball -- there are pages of reviews for this on Google! so here are just a handful)

Saturday, October 29, 2011


I used the random number feature in Excel to choose a winner who is....

(drumroll please)

!!! DONNA S !!!

Donna, please email your mailing address to: nicola327 (at) hotmail (dot) com.

Thanks for playing, everyone.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Emerald City RWA Giveaway

You know, for a romance fan, there aren't many places that are better to live in than Seattle.

For one, it's gorgeous.  You may have heard that it rains all the time--and yes, it can be dreary in the winter, BUT it's also lush and green all year.  I have camellias in my yard that bloom every January.  January!  And on a clear day, the view of the Cascades or the Olympics or Mt. Rainier or the Sound or one of the many lakes is a great mood lifter.

Honestly, I don't mind the overcast weather.  Because what goes better with a great book than a cozy sofa, a hot beverage, and the sound of rain on your windows?  I'm not alone, because Seattle still ranks as the #1 American city for booksellers per capita.

But for the true book geek, the fact that the Pacific Northwest is home to an amazing number of great authors has to be the best thing about being a reader in Seattle.  And for a romance reader in particular, the Emerald City RWA bookfair is the candy store to my inner kid.

It's really an embarrassment of riches.  Earlier this year, I went to a Bookperk "tea" and met Julia Quinn and Eloisa James.  I've been to signings by Candy Tan, Jacquelyn Carey, Kim Harrison, and Patricia Briggs.  I bumped into Jayne Ann Krentz and Stella Cameron in the Barnes and Noble, for crying out loud!

So what does a person do when they have it really, really good?  Share the wealth!

I thought about a couple of different ways to do this, but in the end, I'm a fan of the KISS Principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. 

So Here's The Deal:

Check the author roster in the post below, then leave me a comment telling me which of these talented authors you would like to have a signed book from. If you win, I'll get it for you, and send it to you.  Simple!

I'm feeling generous, so it's open world-wide.  You get one extra entry/chance if you share this post on FaceBook, Tweet, or "like" Alpha Heroes' FaceBook page.  Contest closes at midnight Pacific time Thursday, Oct. 27, and I'll run the pick sometime Friday morning.

Oh! and breaking news:  Julia Quinn is not on the official list for the bookfair, but she confirmed in her Facebook feed that she'll be there.  So she's an option too!

Monday, October 10, 2011


"If I could forgive the temporary weight gain due to excess water retention
I could forgive the rest too... 
it's just a fact of life that no one cares to mention 
She wasn't good, but she had good intentions..."


OK, I'm a little late, but I think I can still pull this off. I have this FANTASTIC idea for an October feature.

Here it is.  Question: what do these authors have in common?

Karen L. Abrahamson
Cherry Adair
Susan Andersen
Vivian Arend
DaniJo Avia
Calinda B.
Kinley Baker
Diana Ballew
Anne Marie Becker
Jenna Bayley-Burke
Elizabeth Boyle
Meljean Brook
Susan Colleen Browne
Vanetta Chapman
Ann Charles
Rebecca J. Clark
Jennifer Conner
Karina Cooper
Lecia Cotton Cornwall
Kate Davies
Heather Davis
Sherri Dub
Karen Erickson
Eilis Flynn
Amanda Forester
P. G. Forte
Susan Fox
Yasmine Galenorn
Sarah Gilman
Gwen Hayes
Delle Jacobs
Paty Jager
Chris Karlsen
Sherrilyn Kenyon
Sherry King
Cindy Kirk
Rose Lerner
Laurie London
Susan Lyons
Jess Macallan
Margaret Mallory
Josie Malone
Bob Mayer
Christa McHugh
Kristina McMorris
Theresa Meyers
Danielle Monsch
Alexis Morgan
Brooke Moss
Debra Mullins
Elisabeth Naughton
Laura Navarre
Dawn Nelson
Erin Nicholas
Terry Odell
Bernadette Pajer
Darlene Panzera
Sheila Roberts
Val Roberts
Gina Robinson
Jacquie Rogers
Gerri Russell
Jeanne Savery
Inara Scott
Alice Sharpe
Stefanie Sloane
Shelli Stevens
Natasha Tate
Candis Terry
Olivia Waite
Christine Warren
Sarah Wendell
Linda Wisdom
Rebecca Zanetti


Answer: They are all attending the Emerald City RWA Conference Bookfair. And I am GOING. (Just to the bookfair; while I'd love to go to the conference itself just to hang around with these talented ladies, it kinda doesn't make sense for a non-author to go to all the workshops.)

Sooooooooo, wouldn't it be great to feature as many of these authors as I can in the month of October?  Watch for some profiles, link round-ups, and so forth over the next few weeks.

Off the cuff, a few comments on the ones I'm already familiar with:

Meljean Brook and Christine Warren - auto-buy. Any questions?

Lecia Cotton Cornwall - I picked up her debut earlier this year as part of my cover experiment, and really quite liked it. Looks like she has a new release, too.

Margaret Mallory - Ooo, yay! I really like her books, and I think I'm behind. Which means hopefully some new yummy medieval goodness to acquire at the fair.

Gerri Russell - I had a chance to get to know Gerri outside of the book world a year or two ago, and she is just the most lovely person. Her first series (3 or 4 books) is about Scottish Templars -- two great tastes that taste great together. Her books don't usually show up on endcaps, so you might need to go looking for them, but I recommend you give them a try.

Shelli Stevens - Man, she is just so cute. I picked up "Take Me" at this same bookfair a couple of years ago from her. She gives me this sideways look..."It's... smexy," she says, as she hands over the book. Hoo, is it ever! And... I'm going to stop right there on account of the PTA president might be reading this.

Elisabeth Naughton - Hmm, well, I did review Marked awhile back, and I also read "Stolen Fury" but didn't review it. They're entirely competent books, but something about them just didn't grab me. I have the second book in the Eternal Guardians series in my TBR, maybe I'll give the series another go.

Cherry Adair - I gather Ms. Adair is something of a celebrity among the local authors. She hosts an annual writers' challenge and is a popular speaker. Unfortunately, the one book of hers that I read, I really didn't like at all. Just not for me. It's been several years so I can't even tell you what I didn't like but it was a pretty strong reaction. Oh well.

Elizabeth Boyle - So the title, "Confessions of a Little Black Gown," really grabbed me and I really, REALLY wanted to like this one but I thought it was only so-so. I did a mini-review here. Don't know if I'll try again.

Debra Mullins - I really liked To Ruin The Duke! Why didn't I review it? I don't know, dammit. Maybe the next one. And wow, she has quite a backlist. Definitely will be diving into that one a bit more.

It's going to be a good blogging month, I can feel it.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Envy Chronicles by Joss Ware - Series Review

Series Review and Post-Apocalyptic Thoughts
Thought #1: "Man, if the grid ever goes down, I'm gonna be food."
Thought #2: "I should get some books on edible native plants... one that includes medicinal properties -- I could be like Claire in Outlander."
Thought #3: "How would you rig a windmill to generate electricity?  I should learn how."
Thought #4: "... I'd better stop right there, or I'm going to end up in a cabin in Montana with a lot of freeze-dried food and guns...."

Generally speaking, I'm not big on science fiction and futuristic settings.  I tend to get bored by the space opera world building and the obsession with technology.  That's what I do for a living (not space travel, but pretty high tech stuff). When I read for fun, I want more character, more emotion in my stories.

But there's something different about the post-apocalyptic subgenre.  It's futuristic, but lower-tech.  In some, maybe most fictional visions, it's pretty much no-tech.  Something about that appeals to us, both to our fears and our desires, I think.  Those of us who are into blogging and reading blogs are a self-selected audience of people comfortable with technology, people who turn to the Internet for fun and entertainment, possibly in addition to using it as an everyday tool for work.  Who among us has not had a fleeting thought that maybe we should be out touching the actual world, and not the internet avatar of the world?  The Information Revolution, and before that, the Industrial Revolution, have done more in the last 200 years to change how people lived than the preceding millenia or two.  Don't you sometimes think that maybe people aren't meant to live this way?  Me too.  (Then I go back to playing "Combine" on Facebook, checking my email, or surfing blog reviews.)

OK, I told you that this stuff gets me going into Deep Thoughts. Which is one reason that I'm so fascinated by Joss Ware's Envy Chronicles.  There aren't too many post-apocalyptic romance series.  (MOAR PLZ).

Series Premise
Something catastrophic-- we're not sure what-- happens to the planet more or less overnight, which caused massive earthquakes, fires, floods, tsunamis, tornadoes.  Mass destruction.

Geographically, the series, at least so far, unfolds between Arizona and Las Vegas, which is the new west coast.  California has fallen off, it seems, sunk or crumbled into the Pacific.  The Arizona/Nevada desert has transformed into a tropic.  While some generated electricity is around, most people are living in small commune-style farming communities.  Envy, named  for the remnants of the LAS VEGAS, NV sign, is, as far as anyone in this story knows, the largest urban settlement around.

I haven't read a ton of stuff in this genre, but most of it focuses instantly on food production.  If you think about it, if "the grid goes down," the most immediate impact for most people is going to be feeding themselves.  Most of us are so far removed from actual food production that the abrupt rupture of those supply lines would.... well, it wouldn't be pretty.  Ware's universe glosses over this a little bit.  Having fast-forwarded 50 years into the future, after the trigger event, she can kind of zoom out from those details and allow the reader to make the reasonable assumption that enough trade is established that the city can feed itself.  The series arc focuses on figuring out what or who caused the cataclysm, and who the mysterious powerful Strangers are.  It has a WW2 Résistance vibe to it, overlaid with good old Cold War-esque conspiracy theory.

The Heroes
I'm loving the characters, and as Casey over at Literary Escapism recently observed, they are nicely diverse, too. (Nothing like the total destruction of civilization as we know it to get humanity to finally pull together, right?)

This delicious group of alpha men in their prime mysteriously survive the cataclysm, because they were deep in the Sonoma caves at the time, and something about the vortexes or ley lines, or mystic hoo-ha protected them.  Like five Cinderellas, they fell into a deep sleep for 50 years while the world changed around them.  When they emerge (I'm not exactly clear on what woke them up?), they are bemused to discover that they each have a paranormal gift; generally as some sort of extension of their pre-event talent.

Really, this is a great setup. Five men, restless, bored, frustratingly purposeless in our times; they're wealthy, athletic, handsome -- but rudderless and reduced to thrill-seeking. Frozen in time for 50 years, their awakening coincides with a culmination of events that lead to some shocking revelations on the depth of human greed and corruption.  The destruction of their world, and the gifts they are given, turn these dilettantes into warriors -- and that's pretty damn hot.

The Heroines
The women of this series are all products of their times, but they run the gamut from hard-bitten former POW, to soft-spoken information specialist, to a post-modern Robin Hood, and world-weary healer.  Generally speaking I think this is a series that's more about the men, but the heroines are well-realized and good partners for their heroes. (I have a particular affection for Robin Hood, err, that is, Zöe), and I like that Ware pairs them up in unlikely ways.

The Tech
You know how "they" always say you should write what you know?  I think in some ways, the opposite also applies: you should NOT read what you know.  It's like how lawyers aren't allowed to serve on juries.  Honestly, Ware does an excellent job overall writing with authority on how things might be, on technology that could survive.  One of the series threads is that the group is working to re-establish the Internet, by setting up wireless outposts around Envy, and propagating beyond from there.

To a degree, this is all feasible and believable.  Sage and Theo and others work feverishly in a basement bunker of Envy, downloading and retrieving cached information from salvaged hard drives.  The wireless transmitters are solar-powered.  You can kind of dig it.  Until you realize that she's talking about retrieving data off FIFTY-YEAR-OLD hard drives and flash drives.  Uh, unfortunately I have to call shenanigans on that. Have you ever tried to dig a file off a dead drive? OK, how about fifty year-old drive?? I'm sorry, that's just Not Happening. Heh. You'd think that if I could buy into vampires and zombies, chambermaids that marry earls, and handsome honorable pirate captains with all their teeth, this wouldn't be such a stretch.

General Thoughts
There were times in these books where I found the prose a little bit of a slog; just... not as effortless or smooth as I'd like.  And the weird villainy gets kind of super-weird there in the fourth book.  Sometimes I felt like the paranormal gifts of the heroes, as well as the sub-plot of the zombies, were distractions from the really interesting parts of the series.

The undeniable thing is though, that the series is fascinating, the world-building has me totally hooked, and I love these heroes. So bring on more Night, Ms. Ware, I'm waiting....

Reading Order & Facts & Stuff
1. Beyond the Night (Elliott & Jade)
2. Embrace the Night Eternal (Simon & Sage)
3. Abandon the Night (Quentin & Zöe)
4. Night Betrayed (Theo & Selena)

According to Ware's website, there are two more Envy books contracted, but no word on when or who.  We're still waiting for Wyatt and Fence's stories, and it would be a shame if Lou Waxnicki didn't get some kind of HEA.

Ware is a pen name of Colleen Gleason, who also writes the arguably more successful "Gardella Vampire" and the new "Regency Draculia" series. I haven't read these, and right now I have to say I'm more interested in Envy. I hope the vampires don't get too distracting.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Q&A with Mary Jo Putney

Every now and then, something I read raises a question in my mind that continues to niggle away until I need to find out more about it.  In my review of Nowhere Near Respectable, when speculating on the "believability" (for lack of a better word) of Kiri and Adam's acceptance into the British ton, my first thought was, "that would never really fly," thinking more of 19th century American attitudes toward race.  My second thought was, "well huh, Britain is much less racist than America, so maybe?" thinking of early 20th century examples of famous African Americans like Josephine Baker.  My third thought? "I have no idea whatsoever." Thus, the niggle.

A little superficial googling will bring up articles on immigration and racism in Britain, and Anglo/Indian politics and tensions, but nothing much is readily available about the aristocracy.  So I decided to go to the source, and emailed Mary Jo Putney directly.  I was properly thrilled to receive a gracious, in-depth reply, along with permission to post our conversation.

Nicola: Hi Ms. Putney!  I'm a longstanding fan of yours and recently read and reviewed Nowhere Near Respectable on my blog.  I really enjoyed the story very much (as well as the first Lost Lord book) but I was wondering a little about the biracial heroine, and if you would be interested in a little interview or follow-up on the topic?

MJP: I'm happy to discuss this topic because it interests me.  I've had a number of mixed race protagonists.  Partly that is because it's easier to have such a character in a Regency historical if one of the parents is English and well-born.  Partly it's because the world's great diversity fascinates me.  Lastly, being caught between two worlds is a good metaphor for the feeling of not belonging that most of us experience as some times in our lives. (Especially but not exclusively in adolescence.)

Nicola: I'm convinced that the not-belongingness is the root of the paranormal popularity, especially the typical arc where the main character, like Harry Potter, spends a good chunk of their life not belonging, and then experiences the joy of realizing that no, it's not their imagination, they really ARE different, and furthermore, finding their "tribe" where they DO belong.  It's a pet theory of mine. :-)

MJP: VERY interesting, Nicola! I hadn't thought of it, but I'm sure you're right, especially with the many YA paranormals.

That said, Lady Kiri was confident as a golden retriever. She was raised with wealth, position, and a loving family, and had no self esteem issues to speak of.  That was a deliberate contrast with her brother Adam, hero of Loving a Lost Lord, who was raised in very different circumstances and felt the need to bury the non-English side of his nature.  (Much of his character arc in that book is accepting that side of him.)

Nicola: I loved that about Kiri!  no victim-ness or self-pity about her.

Nicola: First I want to say that I don't mean to put you on the spot or try to play "spot the historical error" - I am no historian at all and if the answer to all the questions is "I made it up because it makes a great story," I think that's fantastic!

MJP: I'm capable of shameless invention {g}, but I try to work from facts where I can, and invent within a plausible framework.

Nicola: Mainly, I am curious to know whether there is historical precedent for bi-racial persons being accepted into the British ton, and if you had any interesting anecdotes that you might have come across in your research.

MJP: The best example I can think of is Lord Liverpool, who was Prime Minister of Britain in the tumultuous period from the late Napoleon wars up until 1827. He was part Indian, though I'm not sure the percentage.  A quarter, I think, but I won't swear to it.  He was the most powerful man in Britain for 14 years and while there might have been some racial sneers behind his back, it certainly didn't dent his career.

In the earlier days of the British occupation of England, there were very few English women, so it was common for Britons to take Indian wives.  Naturally, the result was Anglo-Indian children.  This shifted during the Victorian period when transportation improved dramatically and the "memsahibs" came out to India.  With them came racism, unfortunately.  To quote from the introduction to my Indian set historical, Veils of Silk (advert: now available in e-book form {g} ):

A paradigm of the racial situation was the elite Indian Army cavalry unit known as Skinner’s Horse. It was founded by James Skinner, the son of a British officer and his Rajput wife. By the end of the nineteenth century, James Skinner’s mixed blood would have prevented him from serving in the regiment he had founded.

Nicola: I remember Veils of Silk and the other Silk books, featuring the Khyber pass -- I often think of that when the extreme geography of Afghanistan is referred to in respect to the current war.  One thing I miss about older romances -- say, 20th century publications {g} -- is characters who travel.

MJP: A friend of mine calls them the "globe trotting books" because she misses them, too.  So do I, but page counts have dropped drastically over the years, and there isn't as much room for plot or exotic setting since first and foremost, the story has to be a romance.  I think this is one reason why e-pubbed versions of backlist historicals are selling well.  Some readers really miss them.

[Back to real-life examples...] Field Marshall Lord Roberts is another mixed race historical figure.  He was a great Victorian military hero who was born in India and had Indian blood.  (Again, I'm not sure how much.)

Nicola: It certainly seems inevitable that there would be a couple of generations of Indian/British offspring of all classes; but I have to admit I really had no idea how much acceptance they would have had in society and whether the laws of primogeniture applied.  I thought it was believable in Adam's story, which then logically meant Kiri's acceptance had to be believable too, because it wouldn't do to snub the sister of a duke {g}. 

MJP: Plus, she's a gurrrl, and hence less threatening to the status quo.  Aristocratic men were always willing to bed exotic sexy females, and occasionally even marry them (though preferably as a second wife.)  An actual peer like Adam, a duke, is much more threatening and unnerving.  Hence his belief as a boy that he had to be as English as possible, or else.

Nicola: I've seen a few critiques of your use of the word "Hindu" to represent race rather than religion -- I assumed that it was a contextual usage? any comment?

MJP: You're correct.  I'll do my best to avoid offensive language that will jerk readers out of stories, but I prefer not to use terminology that is correct now but wouldn't necessarily have been used in the historical period the story is in.  So I'll often use the historical term if it's clear in context what it means even if it's different from current usage. (Actually, in the Regency, Hindoo was a common spelling, but I avoided that here except for the epilogue.

[Nicola's edit: to clarify, the wikipedia article on the word "Hindu" states: "Originally, "Hindu" was a secular term which was used to describe all inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent (or "Hindustan") irrespective of their religious affiliation." ]

Nicola: Finally, since Kiri's mixed heritage is such a key element of the character and story, a reader might have expected to see a darker-complected model on the cover.  Cover "whitewashing" is becoming a bit of pet cause on romance blogs, so I was wondering if you might have any comments on that?

MJP: Sigh.  I could point out that her Indian relatives are from North India, which tends to be lighter complected than South Indians, but it has more to do with the fact that authors have limited control over covers.  Kiri is a shade or two darker than the heroine on the previous book, for what it's worth.  But after all my years in the business, I'm happy when a cover is pretty and eye catching.  (A purist would point out that the gowns on my last two historicals are a lot fuller than typical Regency wear.  But as I said, I'm a pragmatist.)

Nicola: To be honest, covers so rarely have any relation at all to the characters inside, I barely notice them.  I know most authors don't get much say in their covers but I thought with your position you might be an exception.  I assume that the more selling-power the author has, the more say-so they get.  Every now and then one catches my eye enough to give it a look, and once in a while they are so bad that I am repelled {g}, but mostly I look for author names that I know or have been recommended.  I do think that diversity in cover models is becoming -- ever so slowly-- less of an anathema to publishers.

MJP: I hope you're right!  My publisher does listen some about covers, but that doesn't give an author leave to mess around too much.  One must pick one's battles.

Nicola: Thank you so much for your time and thoughtful responses!

MJP: As I said, the topic is one that interests me and that I've returned to again and again in my books. And it's always much more fun to chat then to keep hammering away on my overdue book.


Seriously, this kind of interaction is one of the best things about the internet, in my opinion.  Mary Jo Putney has been publishing wonderful romances since 1987.  I discovered her Fallen Angels series in the late 90s and she has been a total favorite of mine ever since.  If you have never read her books and you love historicals, you are really missing out. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Nowhere Near Respectable, by Mary Jo Putney - Review

I am such a fan of Mary Jo Putney.  While I didn't like her foray into historical paranormal, her non-paranormals are almost always among my favorites.

Nowhere Near Respectable is no exception -- another winner in Putney's impressive catalog.  I think my favorite thing about this story is that it has so many of the things I love about "old skool" romance-- the things that made me fall in love with the genre-- AND all the best elements of "modern-day" historicals.

Old-Skool: exotic traditions, royalty, bi-racial heroine, brutal bad guys, split-second heart-pounding rescues, manacles, smugglers, high stakes adventure, heroine in detective mode side-by-side with the hero.

New-Skool: mutual seduction, inverted power imbalance (she is well-born but he is not), cleaner pacing, no "victims" in the relationship.

If you love historical romance with a bit of smuggling, Napoleonic intrigue, assassination plots, and class commentary, this is one you should pick up.  Some of Putney's books have less of a center-stage plot, and I love those too, those quieter, character-focused stories, but this one has a non-stop page-turning mystery plot speeding along next to the characters falling in love.

When the story opens, Kiri makes a classic old-skool impetuous hair-tossing mistake.  Grievously insulted by any standard, she rides out on her own on a too-far, too-late journey and falls victim to the afore-mentioned brutal bad guys.  In the process, she becomes entangled in a far-reaching plot of kings and traitors.

One of the key plot points here is Kiri's nose.  Although I'm sure it's a very pretty nose, since Kiri is beautiful in the way of romance heroines, I'm referring to a talent rather than appearance.  Like musicians with perfect pitch, there is similar olfactory talent, which makes that person a nose or a perfumer.  Kiri is able to isolate specific notes of scent and can even identify individuals once she's given them a good sniff.

Did that make you snicker?  I have to admit, I didn't find that premise to be all that believable, but hey, it certainly makes for a bit of a change of pace in the usual "find the spy" plot.  I know, actually, that this is a real "thing," that there are famous noses who are in great demand in the fragrance business.  I've even seen them once or twice in romance before (I want to say Judith Ivory had one?).  Using the talent to sniff out (heh) a criminal is a bit over the top, but hey, if you can't be over the top in a romance, when can you?

Like the first Lost Lord book, NNR features a bi-racial protagonist -- this time it's the heroine rather than the hero.  My first reaction is that it's pretty unrealistic to have these characters accepted by the ton, but then I remember that England was more liberal about race than the US.  To be honest, I don't really know.  Surely with all the military and economic activity of the British in India this sort of thing must have happened sometimes, so I decided to just go with it.  I would be very interested to see an article about historical examples of English/Indian mixed-race individuals in the aristocracy.

I have to say, I'm a sucker for a couple who knows/believes that they cannot make a marriage but decides to go for it anyway (maybe my hedonist roots are showing).  I've run into this sort of thing a couple of times lately, where one or the other or both of the couple explicitly thinks or says, "even if I can't have this forever, I will seize this day, this moment."  And that just appeals to me.

Around the Blogosphere
Love Letters to a Library
Fiction Vixen
My Book Addiction
In the Hammock

As always, if you've reviewed this book and would like a link, just let me know by email or comments and I'll edit it in!

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Penis Mightier, for 200, Alex

(Title Reference-- My point -- The Penis sells page views.  Did it bring you here?)

It's always fun to rip on the romance genre -- it has everything! Sex, morality, paternalism, and, um, sex!  As a result, there is always someone doing it. (Er, ripping, that is.)  So by now most of us have seen Susan Quilliam's article about how Romance Ruins Lives and have dismissed it for the unsupported nonsense that it is and are well on our way to forgetting all about it.  I rather wish I had done the same.

I was contacted by a journalist, Katie Drummond, and asked to comment because of my "expertise."   I really did not want to participate in yet another throw-away article that implies that romance readers are idiots of one shade or another, but when I reviewed her past work, it seemed like she typically shows both sides of a question, even if she's leaning a bit to a certain conclusion.  And, I'll admit it, I hoped that maybe it would drive a little traffic here, so I agreed to the interview.

Unfortunately, after a good 15-minutes or so of discussion about the genre, what constitutes fact versus opinion, and expectations (eg: no one expects mystery fans to endanger themselves by interfering in police business) Ms. Drummond quoted me thusly:
“My husband isn’t somebody you’d call an alpha hero. Let’s just say he’s very in touch with his emotions,” Nicola Onychuk, whose blog, Alpha Heroes, covers the romance genre. “But we’re very happy. I can distinguish between fiction and reality.”
Which was pretty much a sidenote in the conversation that I thought we were having, not to mention much, much oversimplified.

But, I guess now that my name is attached to this, I need to make my opinion clear (as if there were any doubt).

FIFTEEN MINUTES: WIN! Congrats on your 15 minutes, Ms. Q. They say no publicity is bad publicity.

RESEARCH: FAIL  Quilliam has an opinion about romance and how it affects her patients.  Fine.  Interestingly, when she attempts to back up her opinions with facts, she uses one reference regarding condom usage which Linda Holmes at thoroughly debunked, starting with the fact that it's 11 years old (thanks Laura, for pointing me to that one).  The second study actually refuted her findings but she cites it anyway, saying
And yet … and yet... I would argue that a huge number of the issues that we see in our clinics and therapy rooms are influenced by romantic fiction.

Based on...what? Gut feel, apparently?  Oh, oh, wait:
It's not all gloom, though. Browse – as I did for this article – the ‘romantic fiction’ section of your local book shop, and {bla bla irrelevant snark about covers}, the sexual content inside can be very healthily presented.
She actually browsed some books on the shelf--browsed, not read-- which... also didn't support her claims. OOO KAAY, lady. Whatever.

CREDENTIAL: FAIL Who exactly is Ms. Q referring to when she mentions "our clinics and therapy rooms"? Is it me or is she implying that she is a practicing therapist? You can find her CV online, and I for one do not see any mention there of her ever actually seeing patients in any capacity.

MATH: FAIL  Quilliam states: some fans read up to 30 titles a month, one book every 2 days. OK, maybe this is just mean, and picking on a typo. But, really? this is a woman who is being cited and rehashed all over the internet (including here, sigh, which makes me part of the problem...) and... and.. .just look at what she writes!  (Hmmm.  Note to self for article idea- don't worry about cites-- "pop-psychology makes you stupid at math...")

I think that takes care of Quilliam.  Now, for young Ms. Drummond.

POP REFERENCE: FAIL Fabio? Really?  You couldn't do any better than the guy who was popular 30 years ago and then had a brief comeback satirizing himself with a fake butter product?  How about Nathan Kamp, Sam BondPaul Marron, or Jimmy Thomas?  Using a name that's outdated and a common object of ridicule gives you away as either lazy or biased or both.

FOCUS: FAIL Did you have a point here? Because your article really just rehashes stuff that Quilliam said without bringing anything new to to the table, and ends on just as wishy-washy of a note. I mean, apparently you got her to speak to you and give you some new quotes, but there were no new points, no other cites. I knew that when I responded to you I was running the risk of being made to look insipid or stupid or both, but one reader telling you that "my husband isn't like a romance hero and that's OK" is not much in the way of support for an argument.  Not that you had an argument that I could see.

Your email and your title vaguely indicate that you want to address the age-old (#4) question of whether romance readers have unrealistic expectations about their partners and their relationships.  Again, this was addressed in multiple studies cited by Quilliam which either explicitly conclude, "Nah," or indicate that romance readers skew toward better relationships and more satisfying romantic (yes, that means SEX) lives.

Perhaps what this means is that, if there is any effect at all, romance readers have REALISTICALLY HIGHER expectations of a mate*.  We expect a mate that treasures us, that connects with us emotionally, that will put some effort into overcoming obstacles-- internal or external-- to be with us, and, yes, good sex.  I'm trying to figure out what there is in there that a "relationship psychologist" could possibly object to.

If that's wrong, I don't want to be right.

Other People Who Think Quilliam Is Full of Shit Unconvincing
The Smart Bitches
Barbara Vey
Maya Rodale
Stephen Wenlock
Catherine Bennett (possibly my favorite)
Margery Kempe
KatieBabs, in her inimitable style
Laura Vivanco
Late add: Laura Mensch, who might be my new hero even if she did beat me to the point I wanted to make.

*if I were the angry militant feminist type**, I would add a comment here about how understandably scary that must be to the oppressive patriarchy.  Which incidentally, would not be incorrect. Or irrelevant.

**What does that even mean? angry militant feminists can make some pretty good points too, fyi.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Defiant, by Kris Kennedy - Review

Best New (to me) Author This Year
It's true, I do adore a good medieval.  I just do, as I have previously documented.  For escapist fantasy, there's nothing quite like the romance of castles and kings, and chivalrous warriors with those long sexy swords.

And the romance shelves these days just don't have enough of them.  Particularly ones where no one turns into a wolf or sprouts fangs.  Not that I don't love my paranormals, but you know.  Sometimes you just need a good Knight.

Defiant is what AAR refers to as a "road romance" - most of the story takes place while the hero and heroine are traveling together. This is a great device for throwing them together in more intimacy than a usual relationship might encounter, and especially in an historical setting, where sleeping and eating and the actual travel are more primitive.

In Defiant, the hero and heroine are both chasing after a priest who has become something of a pawn in the political machinations of King John, who, as we in the 21st century all know, is one of Western history's Ultimate Bad Guys.  The hero's motives appear to be Bad, while the heroine seeks only to protect the priest.

As the story unfolds however, there are generous hints that Jamie Lost's badness is ambiguous, as are his motives.  This is my very favorite kind of hero, I think. (Also, has there been a better hero name, ever?  I think not.)

Narrative Voice
(Wow, that's a terrible subtitle.  But I can't think of what else to put there).  I haven't fallen in love with a narrative voice like this since my first Joanna Bourne experience.  Like Annique, Eva has a French sensibility, political acuity, and is surprisingly good in a fight, although she's not quite the ninja that Annique is.  Near the beginning:
[the priest says:]

"I would not hand you a flower from a garden. I will surely not give you what may be the most powerful bargaining chip in these negotiations. Who knows whom you might sell it to next?"

To his credit, the bishop's shiny face flushed a bright red. "So be it, Peter of London," he snapped. "Ever have you brought these things on yourself."

He reached for the door, but by then, Eva had completed her slow circling of the room and come up behind. She reached out, her blade up, and placed it against the front of his throat.

The bishop froze.

"Now hush," she murmured. "You have brought this on yourself."

Not exactly a Mary Sue!  Another reason I love medievals - they somehow lend themselves better to really intense drama than Regency or Victorian eras.  Life was more brutal, politics more precarious, and while medieval European women may in reality have been just as cloistered and limited as in later centuries, it's somehow more believable when their fictional counterparts throw off convention and really wade into the action.

Things That Blow My Mind
There is an absolutely amazing passage in the book that starts out: "The heart hangs over a pit.  Strung up like a sacrifice, it swings in the winds of the world..." and really, that little piece of prose, about four paragraphs long, almost stopped my own heart. I started to excerpt it here, but for the first time, I've decided not to pull out this choice bit because you, readers, deserve to come upon it in context and  have your own breath knocked out of you. It's not a plot spoiler, but I think it would be an experience spoiler.

That Paralysis Thing Again
I'm still struggling with the paralyzed perfectionism that I wrote about awhile back. Seriously, I started this review more than a month ago.  And I just got stuck, because I didn't want to fail to do it justice.  I don't know how to finish this review; how to put a nice conclusion on it and make the whole thing feel cohesive.  And then I didn't want to post about other books because I really thought I should finish this one first.  Auggh.

So even though this seems unfinished to me, I'm going to post it anyway.

Bottom Line
I loved this book, and I would recommend it to a) everyone; b) everyone, especially medieval fans; c) everyone, especially Joanne Bourne fans.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Body At Rest

Sir Isaac Newton observed that "a body at rest will remain at rest; a body in motion will remain in motion, unless acted upon by an outside force."

More or less.

And while Newton meant this very literally, about physical things and velocity and acceleration, it's also true in other dimensions, including, of course, blogging.

It's so boring to read blog posts about not blogging.  So I'll keep this short.  I just felt weird about starting back in after radio silence for so long.  This is me, attempting to get back in motion!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Second Book Syndrome

I've reached a state of paralysis with the paranormal series.  I'm pretty much caught up with my must-have authors but where to go next?  I've started and enjoyed the first books of these series:

Carolyn Jewel's Immortals
Joss Ware's Envy Chronicles
Laura Wright's Eternal vampires
Erin Kellison's Shadow dark fairy tales

.. and I have the next book or books in all of them just lying in wait for me.  Plus I have a new-to-me series by Robin D. Owens (Heart series) that I picked up for pennies at my local second-hand store,  Pamela Clare's MacKinnon's Rangers trilogy which I totally mistook for a) paranormals and b) Pamela Palmer's Feral Warriors which I didn't really like.  I hate when I do that.

I'm having one of those months (we all have them, right?) when my budget isn't what I need it to be to pick up the latest Nalini Singh, Ilona Andrews and Alyssa Day (waiting impatiently for payday, my pretties) but I have so much good stuff on my shelf as it is, I can't really complain.

Help me pick the next series to start or finish from my bookshelf!  What should I read next?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Legend of Michael, by Lisa Renee Jones - Review

Niche Marketing
Just when I think the number of sub-genres in romance has every possible angle covered, along comes another, even narrower one.  Lisa Renee Jones has kicked off a special-ops/military, paranormal, futuristic romance... and she's not the only one.  Readers who enjoy  Joss Ware's "Envy Chronicles", Jayne Ann Castle's Harmony series, Cindy Gerard and some of Lora Leigh's Elite Ops, and so on, will feel right at home here.

Jones' premise of genetically modified super-warriors is not unique in and of itself, but I really enjoyed her personal spin-- the windwalking talent is mysterious and sexy and dangerous and super-cool.  Love it.  Michael and Cassandra's world teeters on the brink of apocalypse, with the super-race bifurcated into Team Zodius, with the naked goal to rule the world and force ordinary, unmodified humans into slavery; and Team Renegade.  The thing that makes this series potentially Very Interesting is that Team Renegade is a long ways from white hats and rainbows.  Power struggles, loyalties, and betrayals abound, so if you enjoy political intrigue, this should be right up your alley.

While the redemption of Michael is a major theme, Legend  is more of a plot-driven story, in my opinion.  I never really bought into Michael's "badness" so the redemption was a bit less dramatic than it could have been, but this is a tough line to walk.  You can't make a hero too bad or the reader loses empathy.  Overall, I'd prefer an author to err on the side of "not quite that bad," as Jones perhaps does.  That line is highly individual though, so your take may differ.

Cassandra was an entirely adequate heroine, but more or less along for the ride and a bit of a Mary Sue if one were to be picky.  The villains are pretty much over the top evil, which leads me to...

World Building
I'm not always a fan of the military books, but I did like this one.  It starts out with a somewhat odd mix of the way-out paranormal and the mundane routine you might expect from a more realism-based contemp, but an early plot explosion sets the stage for the post-apocalyptic -- or more accurately, a pre-apocalyptic-- feel.  There is a sense throughout the story of a world on the edge of disaster, while Our Heroes struggle to contain and prevent the cataclysm.  The factions each live in something of a bunkered fortress while the rest of the world carries on more or less unaware.

Jones' Zodius world is consistent, creative, and compelling - it's a worthy scene-setter for a new paranormal romance series.  The foundation is laid and there are a number of interesting directions it could go.  This is another "fated mate" trope, and it doesn't really make any more sense to me than any of the others out there... but it's no worse, either.  There's a definite similarity to Leigh's Breeds in that lovemaking bilaterally "seals the deal" for the bond between them, changing both of them physiologically and emotionally/psychologically.  Personally, it's not a trope I dig that much but it's not the central focus here and didn't get in my way too much.

The one criticism I have about Jones' world is that the villains are too evil.  The genetic intervention takes a permutation that basically causes certain individuals to go insane, but I dunno.  I think it's less interesting than a "grayer" set-up.  Perhaps future books will have more nuance; I think she's left adequate loopholes and I hope she takes advantage of them.

Bottom Line
While I can't honestly say that this is the very best book I've read lately, I do think it's a well-written paranormal romance with strong plotting and world-building, and I would happily pick up Zodius #2: THE STORM THAT IS STERLING when it hits the shelves this November -- and that's really the acid test, isn't it?

Around The Blogosphere
The Minding Spot
Black Lagoon Reviews
A Buckeye Girl Reads

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

To Read or To Blog, That is the Question

I've been on a total book bender the last week or two, which partly explains why the blog is so silent.  I've read some great great stuff lately: I absolutely loved Afterlight by Elle Jasper and the buzz about Thea Harrison's Dragon Bound is 100% justified, if you ask me.  Devon Monk's latest Allie Beckstrom book delivered her customary awesomeness; I completely adored Nora Roberts' Bride Quartet and I'm dying to write a post about how she integrates characters with their careers and maybe another one about how much I love the way she writes a kiss scene; I'm in the middle of a fabulous Mary Jo Putney; I need to re-read this awesome Roberta Gellis re-release and review a new paranormal/special ops series by Lisa Renee Jones (liked a lot!); I think we need a discussion about the latest generation of vampires; I'm noodling on a post about romantic/erotic chase scenes and frankly I'm reduced to looking up synonyms for "awesome" to complete this paragraph.

What's got you excited about romance lately?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Wickedly Charming, by Kristine Grayson -- Review

Appealing, vulnerable characters
Who doesn't love a good fairy tale?  I'm convinced that my love of romance in general dates back to the stack of well-thumbed fairy tale books of my childhood -- Grimms, Anderson, and their descendants and variants.

I must say I struggled a little bit with this book in the beginning.  I don't think I've ever run into so many parentheticals and nested parentheticals in so few pages before:

It was going to be hot-- California, too-dry-to-tolerate, fifty-bottles-of-Gatorade hot-- but it wasn't hot yet. Still, she hoped she had on enough sunscreen (even if it did make her smell like a weird chemical coconut). She had her hands on her hips (which hadn't expanded [much] since she was a beautiful young girl, who caught the eye of every man) as she surveyed the stunningly large building in front of her...

The first couple of chapters are riddled with paragraphs like this, in both the heroine and the hero's viewpoint. My guess is that this sort of stylistic choice was employed to add the light-hearted, gossipy, "wacky" voice, in kind of a satiric version of an omniscient narrator, or a parent-to-child effect as though the story was being read aloud. I found it a little overdone/awkward, but it eased up relatively quickly.

Prince Charming
While this is really a story about the heroine, I found the hero's arc to be very appealing. He starts out feeling defeated and past his prime, divorced and powerless.  At times, this characterization even teeters toward unattractive, but his character progression saves him. In letting the people he loves shine on their own, this prince discovers true power, true magic.  Charming is one of the better-drawn beta heroes I've seen, re-imagining his strength from the shallow "sweep you off your feet and into the sunset" style hero to the kind of man who provides a bedrock and battles villains, but stays out of the spotlight most of the time.

Stepmothers get a bad rap in fairytales, let's face it.  Really, "step-mother" is shorthand for "amoral greedy woman who comes to a bad end."  In this day and age of mixed families, it's time for an update.

I once read about a stepmother who listened to her stepchild relate a fond memory of something she'd shared with her mother.  The child mis-remembered; it was something that had happened with the stepmom.  But this particular biological mom was not the fairy-tale, loving, sadly deceased parent; she was alive and unwell and was not very capable of creating fond memories.  My friend, the stepmother, in one of the more selfless gestures I've ever heard of, said nothing, allowing the child to re-imagine that lovely memory with a woman who really, really didn't deserve it...because it made the child happy.

All this is by way of saying even the best stepmoms-- you know, the ones who don't lead the kids out into the woods and dump them, or make them pick cinders out of the fireplace ashes-- have it tough.  Grayson imagines a dark, intriguing backstory for this particular stepmother-- sometimes I was more interested in the backstory than the story-story.

The Story-Story
Frankly I'm always a little leery of a story where the main character is an author; frequently it feels a little too self-referential.  On the one hand, I can see how "telling her story" and the analog to the problematic (to the heroine) fairy tale genre makes it an obvious choice.  On the other, it's... a little obvious.  And a little self-referential. 

And if you're tired of bitter unsatisfied women being cast as the villain, don't look to this book for any major changes.  It seems that yesterday's Princess is today's Witch, with Charming's ex cast as the villain of the piece.

I thought the most interesting piece of the plot was the glimpse we got of the darker magics of the Kingdoms, but that element was a bit player at best.  Still, it served to play up Charming's brains and protectiveness, which helped balance his slightly over-done "geek" element, and there's a seed or two that might come back in other books in Grayson's fairy tale universe.

Bottom Line
Overall I enjoyed this character-driven story, mostly because it takes me back to my childhood enjoyment of fairy tales.  It's a story about second chances, and the message is a real one: you have to work for your happily-ever-after.  I thought it was uneven in places and sometimes felt like it was trying too hard; but it soon hit its stride and pulled together a readable reminisce with characters you'll root for.

Note: a review copy was provided to me by Sourcebooks.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Review: Touch of a Thief, by Mia Marlowe

Release date: Tuesday April 26

First Sentence Hook:
"On any given day, someone writhed in exquisite pleasure at the home of the most sought after courtesan in Amjerat.  Unfortunately for Captain Greydon Quinn, on this day it wasn't him."

Wow, you have to admire that-- heat, humor, and an exotic setting all in two knockout sentences.  I mean, "writhed"-- that's a word with punch, you know?

Even better, this opening is a lovely kernel of Quinn's character and how he relates to the heroine, as you learn while it unfolds.

While Marlowe's story doesn't exceed typical genre boundaries for sex and violence, she makes a bold move by putting them both in the first five pages, and she doesn't mess around with tentative versions of either one.

One of the interesting aspects of this story is that Quinn retains a certain youthful idealism, though he is by no means innocent, while Viola is definitely more the pragmatist of the two.  I liked that neither of them were to one extreme or the other, but the tendencies were gender-reversed.  I had a sense that Quinn was supposed to be a tough guy, but he has an unexpected sweetness and generosity.

Now, Viola is a jewel thief.  There's just something about that trope (is it a trope?) that I enjoy.  I can think of a number of authors who've done this - Jane Feather, Alyssa Day, Shana Abe', Nora Roberts, and Meagan McKinney come to mind (and readers?  I just spent about an hour trying to dig McKinney's name out of 15 years' worth of my brain's archives.  I do this for you, mwah.)  There's a Robin-Hood flavor, as the victims are by definition wealthy, and I don't know, I just like reading about jewels, so sue me.  I found Viola to be daring, smart, and likable - great combination.

The Plot and the Paranormal
Although there's nothing lacking to the characters, I felt that this is more of a plot-driven story.  Marlowe has crafted a taut and twisty page-turner with surprises around every turn.  It's my favorite kind of thriller, with real suspense but not a lot of graphic torture or violence (although the villains meet bad ends, as is right and proper).

One common/recurring paranormal theme or "power" is psychometry, or the ability to "see" or understand things about an object by touching it. For whatever reason, it's a premise that particularly appeals to me, more than certain other recurring "gifts"-- somehow it just seems not only sort of plausible, but awfully useful, and interesting, and potentially dangerous.  Great story fodder with lots of potential directions.  In Touch of a Thief, Viola experiences the history of a jewel when it touches her skin-- she can "see" what has happened to other people who were touching the stone, and the stones also "speak" to her with unique resonances.  This is a great advantage to a jewel thief, as she can instantly tell the real thing from even the best fakes.  The other paranormal aspect of the story is the cursed jewel that they seek - a red diamond.  I like that there's a strong connection across the paranormal pieces.

I've noticed a number of books lately where the paranormal powers allow the characters to bypass certain genre routines - getting to know one another, misunderstandings, even the epiphany moment or question of "do I love him" or "does he love me" etc is sometimes just handed to the character rather than something that has to be learned, earned, or unfolded.  This can be OK if it leaves room for other interesting twists, and I think Marlowe accomplished that.  In this case, even though Viola got a shortcut to Quinn's secret from one of Quinn's personal gems, she still misinterpreted events, which led to conflict.  (I hope that makes sense...)

While the cursed-gem aspect of this story didn't appeal to me hugely, it was consistent and tight throughout the book and worked.  I just found it a bit over-the-top for a story where the paranormal wasn't exactly "out of the closet," and some of the physical evidence of it seemed like it might have raised more questions.

The Heat
Like Viola herself, the love scenes in this book are uninhibited, lush, and gorgeous.  I have a small quibble with Quinn using the Hindi anatomical words in his internal narrative-- this can be explained by the opening scene where we learn that he is a student with an exotic Indian teacher, but I can't help but think that an Englishman is going to think of his dick in English, foreign lessons notwithstanding.  Minor, though; and let's face it, no matter what word an author chooses to represent "vulva" or "vagina" or "penis" or "scrotum," it's not going to appeal to everyone.

Bottom Line
Touch of a Thief is great read - pick it up if you like historical in general, and especially if you're a bit tired of the standard Regency offering.  Marlowe delivers Victorian adventure, spice and romance in a tight paranormal package.

As Always--
If you have reviewed Touch of a Thief, feel free to leave a link and I'll edit it in.

Disclosure: a review copy was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

ABCs of Authors - Weekly Geeks 2011-14

Two memes in a row, is this a problem?  The Geeks are suggesting we post an alphabetical list of authors - favorites, or categorized any way you like, this week.  With a bit of cheating, I managed to find almost 26-- these are all authors I've read and enjoyed.  Not necessarily my all time faves -- I have way too many B's, C's, and S's on that list, but it's a fun little exercise:

A Keri Arthur
B Meljean Brook
C Jacquelyn Carey
D Alyssa Day
E Eloisa James (cheat)
F Jane Feather
G Diana Gabaldon
H Kim Harrison
I Ilona Andrews (cheat)
J Sabrina Jeffries
K Jayne Ann Krentz
L Stephanie Laurens
M Devon Monk
N Nora Roberts (cheat)
O Maggie Osborne
P Mary Jo Putney
Q Julia Quinn
R Luann Rice
S S.M. Stirling
T Sherry Thomas
U Umberto Eco*
V Lynn Viehl
W J.R. Ward
X X-Men Comic author Marjorie Liu
Y Yeah, I got nothing.
Z Roger Zelazney

*Ahahahahahaha. Not really.

If you're new to the Weekly Geeks, I really suggest you check them out.  It's book-blog oriented, and they're more writing or post- prompts than a meme, really, because it's different every week.  I don't participate in all of them but the nice thing is that sooner or later they have topic that will appeal.  Show some Geek Love and visit a few at the Mr. Linky.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Thursday Thirteen, Edition 24: Pending Review

When stumped for a topic for a list, I can always come up with a list of things that I should be doing but am not. I have such a backlog of books that I genuinely want to review, or just talk about... Their covers peer at me hopefully, pensively, wistfully, accusingly. I'm trying to get back in the swing, I really am (have you noticed that Alpha Heroes has a Facebook page now? It's like I'm all caught up with 2009...)

  1. Anne Stewart's House of Rohan trilogy (juicy)
  2. Laura Wright's Eternal Hunger - the next vampire series you have to read
  3. Kathleen Woodiwiss' Shanna, for the Rewind feature
  4. Kristine Grayson, "Wickedly Charming" (May release)
  5. Kim Lenox, Night Falls Darkly - really original Victorian paranormal
  6. JR Ward, Lover Unleashed
  7. Nora Roberts' Bride quartet
  8. Leica Cornwell's Secrets of a Proper Countess - wonderful regency debut
  9. Christina Dodd's Taken by the Prince - serious fun, great heroine, just enough of a dark edge
  10. Playing for Keeps, by LuAnn McLane - a cozy small town contemp
  11. Janet Chapman's Dragon Warrior
  12. The Legend of Michael, by Lisa Renee Jones (May release)
  13. Touch of a Thief, by Mia Marlowe, release date April 26 
I really need to get cracking on those May releases.  Yikes.


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The purpose of the meme is to get to know everyone who participates a little bit better every Thursday. Visiting fellow Thirteeners is encouraged! If you participate, leave the link to your Thirteen in others’ comments. It’s easy, and fun! Trackbacks, pings, comment links accepted!

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Series Review - Jayne Ann Krentz's Dreamlight Trilogy

This seems like an opportune moment to publish this review, since I'm hoping to swing by a signing tomorrow at the Seattle Mystery Bookstore. This is extra fun because the contemporary part of the trilogy takes place in the same historic Pioneer Square neighborhood.

I'm not sure why the stars aligned just right for me with this trilogy, but the first one caught my eye shortly before the third one came out, so I got to read them all pretty close together, which I think is really fun.

Krentz has always been one of the really innovative authors in romance, in my opinion, and manages her career with the steely resolve of one of her contemporary Titans of Industry that were the popular Alpha Heroes of the late 90s (and still are, sometimes). She writes and writes and writes and rarely disappoints. She writes historicals, contemporaries, and is one of the few and one of the first romance authors to venture into futuristic sci-fi romance. She started writing paranormal before "everyone" was doing it, with heroines who had mild paranormal powers (well, mild compared to say, turning into a werewolf or sprouting the wings of a guardian angel, or what have you). Her Arcane series is the first of its kind, as far as I know, that weaves back and forth among her three pen-names and corresponding three subgenres: Amanda Quick in historical, Jayne Ann Krentz in contemporary, and Jayne Castle in futuristic. I think of her as Jayne Ann Krentz, and I believe that's her most successful persona, but her real name is Jayne Castle. I just can't think of her that way, heh.

She's also something of a hero of mine for being among the first to point out the hypocrisy of critics who "worry" that romance readers are giving themselves false expectations of their own lovelives, while apparently having no concerns that readers of Steven King or Robert Ludlum will suddenly start attempting to solve outlandish murders outside the law or setting fires with their minds. If you haven't read Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, you really should. Then, more recently, I heard her give this gem of a speech about the genre.

OK, but none of that tells you about the trilogy, right? Well, to cut to the chase, I liked it a lot. Moreover, Krentz succeeds brilliantly at tying the stories together without making them dependent on each other, so if you only like one of the subgenres, you can still enjoy the series. However, it can get a bit confusing if you actually want to follow the books in the order published. I recommend you check the website and maybe keep a spreadsheet. (That's a joke. Sort of.)

So the Dreamlight Trilogy is a subset of the Arcane series, following the past, present, and future of an artifact of paranormal power. The futuristic one, Midnight Crystal, is the first Arcane book to also be a Harmony (set in the future on the planet Harmony) book, but it fits pretty seamlessly into the Harmony worldbuilding.

How do I know that? Well, actually I've only read a novella from the Harmony books, other than this one, so maybe there are contradictions all over the place, but knowing Krentz, I doubt it. The paranormal elements of the two different worlds are nicely complimentary and work together just fine. I can't say that Harmony is my favorite paranormal world -- it's a lot like 21st century earth, for reasons that are explained, down to email, cell phones, and motorcycles, powered by an eerie green grid. Sort of like Tron, I guess.

It was interesting to read the trilogy all together. I'm not sure I've ever seen one done quite this way -- the plot for all three was pretty much exactly the same, but with very different settings and different villains, getting in the way for their own reasons. I enjoyed each book, but I'm not really sure how I feel about how very very similar the plots were, if that makes sense. I felt like the women characters were more differentiated than the heroes, but there were still a lot of similarities, especially between Chloe and Marlowe.  I have to admit being completely charmed by Adelaide's sketchy backstory as a fortune teller in a Wild West show.  I kind of wanted to read that book. 

One of the things I like about the Arcane world is how the paranormal powers are just known and accepted by the characters. While it's sort of the parallel, hidden world that's common in urban fantasy, there is less of the "no one must ever know!" undercurrent that you get with vampires and shifters; and even less of the fear that others will think they're crazy if they acknowledge or use their powers. That isn't bad in and of itself, but it can get tedious, so the matter-of-fact approach is really refreshing to me. I like that the h/h can just talk to each other about their talents without dancing around it for an extended near-big-mis.

The Dreamlight Trilogy delivers Krentz's trademark fast pace and engaging characters.  Read just the ones you want or all three, it will still work for you -- although I think the Midnight Crystal probably references the prior stories the most.  I think the similarity of the stories is overall slightly disappointing, although in a way, it's an interesting experiment in exploring how setting matters.  This might be a case where the sum isn't greater than the whole and the books might be more enjoyable on their own.

ps, I have a post percolating on the plotting pitfalls of the paranormal proficiencies... but it would make this post too long.


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