Girls in the Game

In honor of the FIFA Women’s World Cup I thought I’d write about some of my favorite romances starring female athletes. It’s not a huge subgenre (certainly not in comparison with male athletes), but they’re out there, and in larger numbers all the time.

I’m interested in how athlete heroines’ bodies are depicted. In Jennifer McQuiston’s Summer is for Lovers, poor Caroline Tolbertson’s broad shoulders look terrible in 1840s fashion, and she is taller than most of the men she meets. Her physicality and her athleticism are therefore at odds with what should be her goal in this time period – to attract and keep a husband. Raine from Elizabeth Lowell’s Remember Summer is more traditionally petite and pretty, but Lowell makes something interesting out of it by pairing her with an enormous horse. When Devlin’s Waterloo misbehaves at dressage, Raine explains to Cord that she scores higher than a larger rider would because her size makes her control over the large animal more impressive. Narratively, it all comes together – Raine is in danger because of eventing, so she must ride a powerful eventing horse, but she must also compete in dressage. To make the dressage interesting, Raine is made smaller.

Of course, I’d love to see the authors take up the challenge of letting these heroines beat their heroes fair and square. When Caroline outswims David, it’s by virtue of her superior stroke. In Juliana Stone’s Offside, Olympic hockey star Billie-Jo isn’t depicted as much better at her own game than Logan. I’d love to see a hero who gets and can handle and honest-to-goodness no-handicaps thrashing from his heroine.

Another topic authors steer away from is the frequent conflict between being at the top of their game as athletes and marrying. Characters in professional leagues travel frequently and are subject to trade at any time, which would require a supportive and adaptable hero. More difficult is the possibility of having children in the middle of prime competitive years (the recent Atlantic profile on USWNT mothers shows how difficult it is to balance childbearing and childrearing with motherhood). Maybe this is why so many athletes, like Billie-Jo, are shown at the end of their competitive careers.

Interestingly, the Olympics are often referenced as a heroine’s bona fide for athletic prowess. Not, of course, for pre-Olympic Caroline, but for Raine, Billie-Jo, and another athlete heroine I love, figure skater and gold medalist Amy Legend from Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s Summer’s End (what is it about athlete heroines and summer?). Authors just have to name-drop pro leagues (even fictional ones) to prove to us that their heroes are top-notch, but they can’t even invent pro leagues for heroines that we will take seriously. It’s the Olympics that reassure us that the heroine is for real. I can’t help but see this as a commentary on our culture’s impression of women’s professional sports. Are there any romances starring WNBA women? I’ve never seen professional tennis or soccer heroines, but could Grand Slam events or a World Cup substitute for Olympics in our minds?

I’d also like to see authors take on some heroine types who are very common in the sports world but don’t seem to be showing up in fiction. If you’re writing sports, it’s simply inaccurate never to write tall, powerful heroines like the Williams sisters or Ronda Rousey, heroines of color like Michelle Kwan, Lorena Ochoa, or Gabby Douglas, and lesbian athletes like Martina Navratilova and Abby Wambach.

What books have you read starring athlete heroines? What works and doesn’t work about these books? Would you like to see more of them?

AAR’s Caroline

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Thank You, My Friend

eric and time got marriedI was born in 1961. I grew up in a time and place where sex, drugs, and rock and roll were things all the cool kids did. So was psychoanalysis. When I was in junior high, the adults in my town were divorcing, doing est, and using an alarming amount of slang. My church youth group performed Jesus Christ Superstar . We were the “hey, it’s cool” generation; our parents listened to Simon and Garfunkel, and kept their copies of The Joy of Sex on a high shelf.

And yet, despite all this open mindedness (or what I thought was open mindedness) no one I knew well was gay. In high school, I didn’t think much about it and in college, when I did wonder, I didn’t feel comfortable asking and no one was telling.

Then, in 1985, after a rather aimless year spent trying to figure out who I was and not finding any easy answers, I enrolled in graduate school in communications. I loved my fellow students. We were all around the same age, all interested in subtext and interpretation. We hung out in our well-used rental homes, drank jug wine, discussed the true meaning of Kiss of the Spider Woman, and shared our dreams for our distant future lives.

Over the first semester, I grew close with a guy I’d nicknamed (only in my head) as The Nicest Guy in the World. He’d grown up in middle class Illinois as one of four in a conservative Lutheran family. He was smart, kind, funny, and laughed at my jokes. I felt honored–and still do–to be his friend.

One day we were walking from class to our friend John’s house. It was an late fall day and the air was full of red dust. I have no idea what we were talking about but somehow our conversation led to him kicking the dirt as we walked and telling me, very slowly, he was gay. At that point in his life, coming out to straight people wasn’t something he did. His family didn’t know. I was the first friend he told.

I remember thinking “This is important.” I remember feeling thrilled he trusted me. I remember reaching out and grabbing his arm and giving it what I hoped was a supportive squeeze. I remember not being surprised. I remember feeling sad his family wasn’t the sort he could share this with.

What I don’t remember thinking is “This moment will change me.” And yet it did.

I’m happy to report that, in general,  I’ve become as tolerant as I’d hoped I’d be back in the anything goes 1970s. And I’m sure part of why I’ve so embraced LBQT rights is that I’ve spent the past three decades loving someone who is gay. When I hear the soon to be outdated phrase gay marriage, I think about his and his partner’s joyful trip to City Hall. When I think about the importance of legal standing, I’m grateful they live in a place where being a (gay) husband is just that in the eyes of the law. My life now has many LGBT people in it and that seems wonderfully normal. But my friend was my first and for that I thank him.

When gay marriage was made the law of the land this week here in the States, I was overcome with emotion. To me, living in a nation where our second term black President gave a speech praising the Supreme Court’s decision to allow gay Americans to wed is almost miraculous.

This sense of joy was echoed in my social media world which is rife with people from Romanceland. On Twitter, author after author and reader after reader shared their joy. And this makes sense to me. Because what drives most of us who love romance is the belief that, no matter whom you are, love will make you happy. Romance feature heroes and heroines from almost every place you can think of. In between the pages of our novels, everyone who works for love deserves a happy ending. This week, that came closer to being the truth for the real world too.

Dabney Grinnan

 

Posted in Dabney AAR, Relationships | 9 Comments

The Audiobook of Beyond the Sunrise is a DIK!

Mary Balogh’s 1992 novel Beyond the Sunrise boasts a storyline quite unlike those found in the other books of hers I’ve read in that it’s mostly plot, rather than character driven. That isn’t a criticism, however, because I enjoyed this new audiobook (narrated by Rosalyn Landor) very much. It isn’t without its problems, the principal of which lies with the heroine’s somewhat cavalier treatment of the hero and I suspect that had I been reading the book rather than listening to it, I might have found her difficult to like, but Ms. Landor is able to portray her with such empathy that even when I didn’t particularly like her actions, I was at the very least able to understand her and even feel sorry for her and angry on her behalf at situation in which she has been placed.

The bulk of the story takes place in Portugal and Spain in 1810, but the book opens eleven years earlier at the country seat of the Marquis of Quesnay, when we meet our two protagonists, who are then aged fifteen and seventeen. Jeanne is the daughter of the Comte de Levisse, a French emigré and Robert is the only – although illegitimate son – of the Marquess. During one idyllic summer, the young couple falls deeply in love, only to be cruelly separated by the Comte, who, recognising the strength of daughter’s feelings for a young man far below her in station, tells her that Robert has been boasting of his conquest and laughing behind her back at her gullibility. Jeanne believes her father’s lies and hides her true feelings behind the smiles and light-hearted gaiety that are to become one of many weapons in her arsenal of feminine appeal, and informs Robert that she had just been toying with him. After all, what possible interest could the daughter of a nobleman have in a bastard?

The story then moves ahead eleven years, to a ballroom in Lisbon where Captain Robert Blake of the 95th Rifles, recuperating from injuries received in the line of duty, is feeling ill-at-ease, and chafing to return to his regular duties. He is utterly stunned to see Jeanne – now the widowed Marquesa Joana das Minas – enter on the arm of a fellow officer, and all his feelings of adolescent rage and hurt come tumbling back. She, however, doesn’t recognise him at all.

Joana immediately senses that in Robert, she has found a man who is not going to succumb to her charms and fall at her feet, which naturally makes him something of a challenge. For his part, Robert is well aware of this fact, which makes him even more determined to keep his distance when he can and treat her with cold indifference when he can’t.

But the pair is thrown together by the Viscount Wellington, who sends Robert on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. Unbeknownst to the captain, Joana has been acting as a British agent for a number of years; having ties to England (her mother was English), France and Portugal (her late husband was Portuguese) means that she is able to move easily between the British forces, the Portuguese partisans and the French, who believe her to be a double agent. For the sake of the mission, Robert cannot be allowed to know all this, and Joana knows that there will come a point in their journey when she will have to act in such a way as to convince the French that she hates him – and that she will cause him to actually despise her in the process.

When Wellington’s plan is put into action, Joana plays her part so well that Robert is completely convinced by what he perceives as her betrayal of both her mother’s country and himself, and his sense of her duplicity is powerfully compounded by her long-ago treatment of him – so much so that even when she finally tells him the truth, he doesn’t believe her.

This is probably my main issue with the story – not so much that Robert can’t bring himself to trust Joana, but rather the way she insists on treating him, continuing her act as “the Marquesa”, the flirtatious, coquettish widow who treats men as her playthings – she even admits to herself that Robert’s distrust of her is not surprising given the way she treats him, yet she cannot abandon her act, feeling that should he realise how she really feels about him, he will break her heart. Another, smaller issue is that because there is a great deal of focus on what is undoubtedly a well-thought out and executed plotline, there is less emphasis on the development of the romance between the principals; the listener is expected to take it as read that these two still harbour strong feelings for each other, and the story is more about how they move through longing, betrayal and distrust to find one another again. Theirs is a tempestuous relationship – their inability to keep their hands off each other leading them to agree to be “frenemies-with-benefits” for the duration of their journey – but it also includes some moments of great poignancy, such as the one evening when they agree to forget everything and allow themselves a moment out of time.

In spite of my quibbles, this quickly became an audiobook I was reluctant to turn off, which was in no small part to Rosalyn Landor’s compelling narration. Her ability to get to the heart of a story and its characters never ceases to amaze me, her pacing and acting choices throughout the book are spot-on and her performance of the narrative is as emotionally resonant as her characterisations. In short, she once again delivers an absolutely flawless performance. She differentiates very effectively between all the main and secondary characters, utilising a variety of European accents when called for, all of them sounding authentic and never so thick that the listener has to work hard to make out the words beneath. I especially enjoyed her portrayal of Robert, who is tough, hard-edged and sexy, but with a well-hidden vulnerability which Ms Landor nonetheless finds and conveys with perfect subtlety.

There is one problem with the production that is in no way down to the performance – there are lots of pauses at odd moments which seem to be present for no discernible reason. (This happened as well in Garden of Lies also produced by Recorded Books). I looked through my print copy of Beyond the Sunrise to see if the pauses were breaks between paragraphs, but they are not. They became quite distracting as my listening progressed; one of them came right at an *ahem* important moment in a love scene, and took me right out of the moment! But while it was noticeable and more annoying at some times than at others, that fault didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of the audiobook, which I’m strongly recommending to fans of the author, the narrator, and historical romance in general.

Grade: A- (Narration: A and Book Content: B+)

Sensuality: Warm

Unabridged Length – 14 hours

 

–Caz AAR

Posted in audio books, Caz AAR, DIK | Tagged | 2 Comments

The Sweet Raunchy Joy of “Catastrophe”

Over the past week my almost 18 year old niece–she’s living with me for a month, brave soul–and I watched all six episodes of Amazon’s original show Catastrophe. And original it is.

In the show’s first few scenes, Rob and Sharon–played with comic finesse by British star Sharon Hogan and American comic Rob Delaney–meet at bar, stumble into bed (overcome by lust and booze), have crazy sex for the next six days–Rob’s in London on a business trip–and amicably part. The two like each other and really enjoy knocking boots together but neither is looking for a relationship and, well, Rob lives in Boston. (You can see the trailer here.)

We next see Rob, 32 days later, on a date with a very attractive woman. As he’s flirting with her, his phone rings. The screen reads “Sharon (London Sex)”. She tells him she’s pregnant and it’s there the show begins to surprise. Rob’s not angry or particularly upset–he’s supportive. He tells her he’s coming to London and whatever happens, they’ll work it out together. It’s a startling moment because, until that moment, Rob and Sharon seem unlikely candidates for a serious relationship. She’s 40, single, and happy being so. He’s 38, single, and likes his Boston life just fine. And yet, when Sharon comes down pregnant, they both realign their lives. Within a week, Bob’s moved in with Sharon and they’ve decided to keep the baby.

Catastrophe’s a little bit of a thing–each episode clocks in at less than a half an hour–and yet every episode manages to be very funny and unexpectedly moving. Sharon and Rob are tested by their own fears–especially Sharon–as well as how little they really know each other. Both take refuge in ribald humor, are relentlessly frank, and both, when it matters, offer the other support and partnership.

Romantic comedy isn’t something American TV does especially well. The laugh-track inducing jokes tend to lack subtlety and the vast majority of characters veer toward the stereotypical. Catastrophe, despite Mr. Delaney’s participation and Amazon’s sponsorship, feels decidedly British to me. It plays like something Richard Curtis (the screenwriter of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love, Actually) would pen. There are moments of real pathos–Sharon’s decision to have an amniocentesis because of her age and her prenatal testing results brought me to tears–and moments where I giggled uncontrollably. The show deals so bluntly with the messy realities of sex and pregnancy (separately and together) that it’s occasionally shocking. Sharon and Rob are marvelously real. They bicker, go to the bathroom, worry about their work, and view with viable skepticism their romantic chances.

The show isn’t perfect. The last episode veers into melodrama. It’s too short–three hours isn’t enough time to develop all the show tackles. Everyone around them is decidedly odd–although all the supporting cast is excellent. Rob’s mother, played by Carrie Fisher, is inexplicably hostile. I feel sure London isn’t this affordable.

I really like it. Sharon and Bob are confident, sensual adults who have no interest in being anyone other than the people they are. Catastrophe is a love letter to pregnant sex–Sharon isn’t any less seductive to Bob nor does she have any doubts about her carnal appeal. They both have jobs which they talk about as well as ideas about what their lives should look like. They are committed to their relationship but don’t pretend to be madly in love. They show up when they say they will. Catastrophe is both for and about grownups. In it, marriage and a baby are scary, sexy, and worth working for. So are orgasms, alone time, and having someone who laughs at your jokes. I’m rooting for Sharon and Rob–the show has been renewed for a second season–and, if you like your love stories to have a filthy mouth, a well-used bed, and the possibility of true love, perhaps you will be too.

 

Posted in Dabney AAR, Television | Tagged | 6 Comments

Midweek Minis: The Late June Edition

It’s been hotter than the devil’s backside where I live so, whenever possible, I’m staying indoors. And when the thermostat is still topping 100 degrees at the end of the day, I indulge in chilled rosé and hot romance and all is right in the world.

I’ve been on a re-reading tear–I’ve burned through most of Kristan Higgins’ backlist (my favorite is The Next Best Thing) and next plan to treat myself to Jo Goodman’s westerns (I’m partial to True to the Law).

AAR staff have been reading too. This week, Melanie, Maggie, and Caz give you their takes on nine books.

Enjoy!

Dabney


 

Melanie’s takes:

Axbridge by Sasha L. Miller is another short and sweet fantasy novella with more of a first blush of romance rather than a full-blown relationship. We have Tannis, a soldier regularly partnered with mages, searching for the village healer when his partner is badly injured by a rogue mage. The healer, Isani, has experience with said mage, Corric, and offers his help and the hospitality of the village while Tannis continues to hunt the rogue.

Since this story is all of 18,000 words, we don’t get a whole lot of background in the world or the characters, but I thought the author did a pretty good job of showing who the characters are. Tannis is strong and loyal to both his partner and his country. He’s also incredibly open-minded and actually quite sweet and respectful towards others, even when they are less than wonderful to him. He’s confronted by both the village leader and Isani, and he doesn’t get angry, he just explains. I wish I had that ability! Isani is prickly, but obviously cares about his village and people in general. He’s had issues and his current situation certainly doesn’t help – he’s overly sensitive to people coddling him (when we first meet him, we find he only has one leg), and it takes a confrontation with Tannis for him to calm down about it. There are also all these aborted looks between the two – like they are watching each other, but trying not to be noticed. It’s adorable.

Basically, it’s short and sweet like a good first date – you meet each other, you hang out, and you’re left wanting more. The romance is still a possibility, but nothing is set yet. It’s really more about the fight and the fantasy than the romance. The story is more a way to get the two to meet. I really wanted there to be more, but I loved the potential we were left with. Grade: B. Sensuality: Kisses.

 

In The Other Side of Winter by G.B. Gordon, our two heroes, Bengt and Alex, are being reunited after a year apart, hoping that their week-long romance was enough to keep them together now that they are in the same place. Alex is one of many refugees from Santuario, a poor and corrupt nation, hoping to find a new home. Bengt is a homicide detective, and wants nothing more than to take care of Alex, and give him anything he could possibly want. Unfortunately, both Alex and Bengt are alpha males, and Alex pulls away each time Bengt tries to reach out.

Alex’s reactions to Bengt and to the whole new culture he finds himself in strike me as pretty true-to-life – he’s obviously suffering PTSD, and actually sees a therapist! That was wonderful! And the power imbalance (especially since both of the heroes are fairly dominant) was the most interesting part of the story (and led to a lot of angry sex. Like, most of it, actually). The problem is the entire plot is based around this, and it’s just not enough to keep the story moving. There’s a murder mystery that occupies a large part of the story, but it actually pulls the reader out of the whole sci-fi genre bit.

I cannot harp enough on the importance of world building, especially in sci-fi and fantasy, and sadly, that’s where this one failed for me. It literally took reading the spoiler tags on the publisher’s website to confirm that yes, this book is sci-fi, is actually on a different planet and in the far future, and not in some made-up Scandinavian countries. I honestly thought we were in Iceland or something.

I’d be interested to read the prequel to this, and try the author again, but while it was an enjoyable read, there wasn’t anything particularly great about it. Grade: C. Sensuality: Hot.


Caz’s takes:

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of marriage-of-convenience stories, so this one was right up my alley! Ian, Marquess of Sutcombe has recently inherited an empty title.  His father’s profligacy and his step-mother’s greed have bankrupted his estate and he has no alternative but to marry an heiress. He is naturally not thrilled at the prospect, but beggars can’t be choosers, and he settles on Hannah Leeds, daughter of a wealthy businessman and mill-owner. Hannah is on the rebound, however, having recently been dumped by the young man she thought had loved her, and Ian is too preoccupied with his own humiliation at what he sees as being bought and paid for to pay much attention to the fact that his new fiancée is overly subdued.

The best thing about this book could also be regarded as its biggest downfall.  Both Ian and Hannah are such sensible characters who, as they get to know each other, open up more and more and actually TALK to each other (Gasp!  This is so often not the case in historical romances!) that there isn’t a great deal of conflict in the book. The upside to that is that there aren’t any silly misunderstandings (so far), and what we actually get to read feels like quite a realistic portrait of a marriage between two people who come together under trying circumstances who have to work out how to get along. It isn’t always easy; Ian is very touchy about the fact that he feels as though he’s been bought, and reacts badly to even the faintest intimation that he is obliged to do whatever his new wife wants – even taking her to bed becomes a minefield full of who wants what and is doing what to please whom! – and Hannah is still suffering the hurt and humiliation of rejection.  She is also unsure of Ian, who is so inscrutable that she despairs of ever coming to know him or being able to have a companionable relationship with him.

The book proceeds along these lines until around the 75% mark, which is when the silly misunderstandings begin, and the author injects a bit of melodrama with the introduction of Ian’s wicked step-mama, who really IS evil, and brings back Hannah’s youthful love just to throw a spanner in the works. It’s completely superfluous and I could have done without it; and I didn’t at all appreciate the manner in which Ian seemed to suddenly believe that Hannah would betray him in spite of her repeated assertion that the man meant nothing to her.

I’d have graded A Bride for His Convenience in the B range but for the final quarter of it;  I liked the way Ian and Hannah gradually came to understand each other, but the silliness and melodrama towards the end mean I’m giving it a C+. Sensuality: Subtle.

 

Set in Restoration London, The Marigold Chain is a book I’ve re-read many times since the first time I read it almost thirty years ago, and it is still every bit as enjoyable as it was that first time. While quite spectacularly drunk, Alex Deveril wins the hand and dowry of Chloe Herveaux in a card game. Not prepared to stay under her wastrel half-brother’s roof any longer, Chloe is only too ready to depart with Alex, intending to go to stay with friends for the night, but she has reckoned without Alex’s stubbornness.  He won a bride and a bride he will have – and he won’t take no for an answer. He and Chloe are married that night.

The next morning, amid a hangover of Biblical proportions, Alex comes to the realisation of what he’s done, apologises and suggests to Chloe that they seek an annulment. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick, but he thinks it may be possible, especially if the final decision ends up resting with the king.

What follows is a thoroughly enjoyable romance, set amid the intrigue of the court and against the backdrop of the war between the English and the Dutch, and later, the horror of the Great Fire of London. Alex is a delicious hero, gorgeous, charming, and highly intelligent, with a quick wit and sharp tongue that can wound at twenty paces, but who, beneath it all is a man of courage, honour and deep loyalty. Chloe is no simpering miss, but a strong young woman who metaphorically rolls up her sleeves and gets on with it, quickly adjusting to her changed circumstances and the mercurial husband who keeps her constantly on her toes. The historical background is comprehensively researched and in the scenes which take place amid the streets of London, the reader is completely immersed in the sights and the sounds of the city. The cast of supporting characters – including His Glorious Majesty, King Charles II – is very well fleshed out, and another of the things I enjoy very much about Ms Riley’s work, her skill in writing strong male friendships is very much in evidence.

Ms Riley has the knack of writing the most delicious romantic and sexual tension between her principals, and the gradual progression of the romance between Alex and Chloe is masterful, and something to be thoroughly savoured. Some fondly-remembered books turn out to be disappointing upon a re-read years later, but fortunately, The Marigold Chain is not one of those and pulls me in every time. Grade: A. Sensuality: Warm.

 

I’ve said before that it takes a truly gifted author to turn out a novella which gives the reader the same degree of satisfaction upon finishing as can be found on the completion of a full-length novel, and I suppose the fact that The Mad Earl’s Bride by Loretta Chase should be recommendation enough.

At the age of twenty-seven, Dorian Camoys, the Earl of Rawnsley is dying, plagued by the same illness that killed his mother.  She died alone, in an asylum for the insane, and Dorian expects that before long, he will begin to exhibit the symptoms of madness. He already suffers from the blinding headaches and visual flashes that she endured, and knows he doesn’t have long left.

His remaining relatives, however, are concerned for the title and have decided that Dorien should marry and beget an heir while he is still able to. The duc d’Abbonville, the head of the French branch of the Camoys family – and who is also the fiancé of the redoubtable Genevieve, Jessica Trent’s grandmother – believes he can persuade Dorian to do his duty by the title, and has already selected him a bride, Miss Gwendolyn Adams, who is another of Genevieve’s granddaughters.

Like both her grandmother and her cousin Jessica, Gwendolyn is a very formidable young woman. She is passionately interested in the medical sciences but as this is a time when formal training was not possible for a woman, she has to content herself with studying on her own. Marrying the Earl of Rawnsley will give her the funds and influence to enable her to build and run a new hospital, and it’s that which is her primary motivation for agreeing to the duc’s proposal – well, that, and the opportunity to perhaps help Dorian and gain some insight into his illness.

Despite his initial reluctance, Dorian agrees to the marriage, and even though he is determined to maintain a distance from his bride, Gwen won’t let him, encouraging him to talk about his illness and conducting her own researches into the nature of it. To his surprise, she treats him as a normal, sane and intelligent individual, and one, moreover, who makes her melt into a puddle of lust:

“I wish you could see the way you look at me.”

“Like a lovesick schoolgirl, you mean?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Well, what do you expect? You are shockingly handsome.”

He leaned forward, his eyes narrowed.  “I have a brain disease.  My mind is crumbling to pieces!  And in a few months I shall be a rotting corpse!”

After which, she basically pats him on the cheek, says “there, there, dear, never mind” and changes the subject.

I suspect that most readers will be able to work out what is actually wrong with Dorian before Gwen does, but she is working without the benefit of current medical knowledge, and one of the things that keeps the reader hooked is wondering when Dorian will realise that he doesn’t have one foot in the grave after all.

Both Dorian and Gwendolyn are likeable, well-drawn characters, their relationship is beautifully developed and their interactions are by turns funny, tender, sexy and heart-rending. Dorian’s desire not to be pitied and to have control over his life for as long as he can is poignant and quite understandable, and I loved the way he encourages Gwen in her studies. The Mad Earl’s Bride is a fabulous, quick read and one I heartily recommend if you’re looking for a quick romance fix! Grade: A-. Sensuality: Warm.

 

Duty and Desire is the second book in the author’s Hearts of Honour series, but can be read as a standalone.  The two protagonists are both gentry fallen on hard times – so no dukes or debutantes – and the slow-burn romance between them is really well-developed and the problems they face feel quite realistic.

Grace Daniels is the bastard daughter of a baron and was brought up alongside his legitimate family until his death, when she was cast out and left to her own devices. Fortunately, her great-aunt – a midwife and healer – took Grace in and taught her the tools of her trade, so that now, Grace has a large and respectable local practice among the ordinary people in and around the village of Hartley.

Former military officer Jonathan Loring is a widower with a young son who is seriously ill.  Born into the aristocracy, he resigned his commission in order to care for Peter following the death of his young wife.  Although he was formerly the commanding officer of the local landowner, Viscount William Blackthorn, Jonathan now works as the viscount’s estate manager, a job he enjoys, even though his snobbish mother hates the idea of her son doing something so lowly as paid employment.  But Jonathan has no alternative.  His profligate brother has brought the family to financial ruin – stealing Jonathan’s inheritance in the process – and he is supporting his mother and sister, and in addition, the medical consultations and treatments he employs for Peter are expensive.

At the beginning of the story, Jonathan and Grace don’t like each other very much at all.  He dismisses her natural, traditional methods as little more than “witchery” and Grace quite naturally gives as good as she gets, rather enjoying baiting him at times.  But when he is finally desperate enough over his son’s situation to swallow his pride and ask Grace for help, the two begin to see each other in a different light, and gradually to fall in love.  Unfortunately, however, neither of them is in a position to marry – Jonathan is close to penury and cannot afford a wife, and Grace’s profession allows little room or time for romantic attachments, so they are faced with a difficult choice.  Do they part forever, or embark upon a clandestine affair, something which, if discovered, could destroy Grace’s reputation and livelihood forever?

Jonathan and Grace are both well-rounded, engaging and compassionate characters, and the storyline dealing with Peter’s illness is both unusual for an historical and realistic.  My criticisms are mostly confined to the latter part of the book, when things are resolved rather too easily, and I wasn’t quite convinced by Grace’s “I can’t marry you because of my career” stance.  But otherwise, Duty and Desire is an enjoyable read in which the emotional connection between the protagonists is deeply felt and their physical encounters are imbued with sensuality and tenderness. Grade: B. Sensuality: Warm.


Maggie’s takes:

I was surprised to realize Blueprints is the first book I’ve read by the prolific Barbara Delinsky. We’ve both been around the romance community so long I would have expected us to meet long before now.  Better late than never, right?

Caroline MacAfee is the host of Gut It! a home renovation show on local public television which revolves around women in the construction business. Caroline, a skilled carpenter, her daughter Jamie, a talented architect and her best friend, Annie Ahl, a gifted landscape artist are the backbone of the series. The show has been a surprising success and the ladies are justifiably proud of their work.

Then the network decides that the show needs a younger host and they want to promote Jamie over Caroline and shove the equally aging Annie into the background. Jamie is asked to be the messenger of this bad news, information she knows will devastate her mother.  Caroline has already been replaced once for a younger, hipper model by her ex-husband. Just when the two women are grappling with this painful dilemma Jamie’s father dies leaving her the guardian of a toddler.

Suddenly the two women find themselves overwhelmed as they deal with a devastated head of the family, a young boy who longs for his parents, a network determined to pick a fight while they are still trying to meet a deadline and a company catastrophe which could mean the end to their construction company.

Into this fray enter our two stalwart heroes. Dean Brannick, the general construction manager is the only male who appears in every episode of Gut It! He’s long had a thing for Caroline and as he watches her struggle with all the sudden changes in her life he realizes just how much she could use a supportive guy like him. Charlie “Chip” Kobik, toddler wrangler extraordinaire, is there for Jamie as she starts down the parenting road with her little half-brother. The two bond over games of tag, milk and cookies, pizza and art projects. Pretty soon Jamie can’t imagine being a single mother when it’s so clear the perfect dad is right in front of her.

The book has some flaws. It leans towards instant chemistry equaling love and saccharine solutions to life’s big problems. That’s okay. The story deals with some dark subjects – such as the unfair treatment of women as we age – and giving such issues a hopeful, happy conclusion gives the whole story a wonderful, feel good vibe. Grade: B. Sensuality: Warm.

 

The Bones of You by Debbie Howells is a psychological thriller that revolves around a missing teen. Kate is stunned when she receives a call from a woman she knows named Jo who is asking if Kate has seen Jo’s daughter. As the hours turn into days with the teen still missing, Kate finds herself absorbed by the situation. She has a daughter the same age as the missing young woman and simply can’t imagine what Jo is going through. The two women had never been friends but Kate finds herself spending more and more time with Jo as the situation grows darker and more desperate.  And then the unthinkable happens. . .

Examining the ties between women – mothers, daughters, sisters and friends – this is a story that reiterates what we all know: no family is exactly how they appear from the outside. While the middle lags a bit this debut novel will keep you turning the pages to the end. Grade: B- Sensuality: Subtle.

 

Minutes to Kill is the second book in Melinda Leigh’s Scarlet Falls series. In this thriller, attorney Hannah Barrett comes between a hooker and her pimp when she is leaving a work related party at a ritzy Vegas club. Hannah, daughter to a former U.S. Army Ranger colonel, knows how to handle herself in a fight but this time a well timed punch sends her to the hospital with a concussion. Fortunately, she was already planning for vacation time with her family and she heads to Scarlet Falls to dog sit and recuperate while the rest of the clan heads out of town. But Hannah can’t get the young hooker out of her mind. Nor can she resists the wiles of Detective Brody McNamara, who set her blood to boiling the last time she had visited the area and looks to be doing it again this time around.

The positive of the book is the solid romance between Brody and Hannah. The two take ample down time to know each other as the mystery portion of the book slowly builds to a climax. Both characters are mature adults who handle their relationship like grownups and the author does a good job of skillfully showing what draws them to each other. That portion of the book was very well done.

The “mystery” was a big problem in the book for me since there was no real mystery. I knew who the villain was from the start and since this is a romantic suspense, I knew both characters would make it. I felt no tension as the pimp from the start of the novel stalked Hannah and waited for a vulnerable moment. The secondary mystery involving who hired the hookers was equally tension-free.

So a strong romance and weak mystery combined to make the grade a B-. Sensuality: Warm.

Posted in Caz AAR, Dabney AAR, Maggie AAR, Melanie AAR, Mini reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Romance in Real Life: Personality and Love

MyersBriggsTpesSo I’m still not reading much (though I did manage a re-read of my favorite romance novel of all time, Mary Balogh’s Slightly Dangerous). I have, though, been paying a lot of attention to real life romance because that’s where I am at right now.

Believe it or not, I spend a decent amount of time bonding with my ex over how much better we work together as friends and how much happier we are with other people. And this despite the fact that he’s back to dealing with young children again (our youngest child is fifteen) and I am dealing with a significant other who is often away. Both of us have done a lot of thinking and analyzing of why we didn’t work as well together as we wanted to. Part of it, definitely, is that we married so young. I’m not sure anyone knows exactly what they want at nineteen. I thought I did, but then I pretty much thought I knew everything back then. I’m not sure anyone should get married when they still think they know everything.

Honestly, there are some things I had no idea I even needed in a relationship until I started getting them consistently without even asking for them.

I am also, as it happens, a fan of the Myers Briggs personality inventory. I get that not everyone loves personality tests (in fact, one of my daughters can’t stand them). But I find it useful to refer back to reading about my type when I am in the middle of life changes, or when I am trying to figure out why something bothers me. For me, it’s helpful. I couldn’t resist having my new significant other (for the sake of anonymity, we’ll call him Marine Guy) take it too. I’m an ENTJ; he’s an ESFJ.

Now, my crash course in online reading suggests that we make a fairly uncommon – and perhaps not ideal – match. Happily (?) part of my personality is that I don’t like to be told what to do, and if I can make something work by sheer force of will, I’ll do it. Part of his is valuing relationships in a very committed and traditional way – and pursuing them quickly and enthusiastically, which is certainly what happened.

You can get some good laughs out of looking up fictional characters who share your personality type (though who takes the test for Captain America, who apparently shares a type with one of my sons, I couldn’t tell you). I may be Tom Riddle and Magneto, but I am also Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy, Lady Mary from Downton Abbey, and Amanda Woods from The Holiday (the last is funny because I often described myself as similar to her during my dating phase). Marine Guy in apparently Cher from Clueless, Peter Quill from Guardians of the Galaxy, and Emmett from the Lego Movie.

Getting back to actual reality, much of what I read suggests that people of similar communication styles (if you nerd out on this, it’s the N/S (Intuitive vs. Sensing) deal better together than those of opposing styles. To explain it in a super-crash course kind of way, Sensors are more detail oriented and Intuitives are more “big picture” thinkers. Curiously, ex and I are both Intuitives now in relationships with Sensors. Both of us are – at least currently – finding this charming, probably because both of us tended to fixate on the realm of ideas to the point that little details got ignored and became a source of contention.

“She replaced the light in the refrigerator!,” my ex enthused (in a tone that suggested that this was a feat akin to climbing Mount Everest. And maybe it was. That light had been out forever and would probably have stayed out until we bought a new refrigerator).

Marine Guy knew after one date exactly how I liked my salad (I order like Sally). And, when waiters fail to bring my lemons he notices and makes sure they bring them. When I am too far into the realm of the hypothetical, he can bring me back down to earth. When I was obsessing over the family changes – me moving out of my house and into his, and ex’s girlfriend essentially swapping places with me – I said something to the effect of “My kids don’t know what it’s going to look like after I leave.” He replied, “It’s going to look like [Girlfriend] being there with her son and five year old, and you not being there.” When you get down to it, maybe it really is as simple as that.

Obviously, a relationship is more than just a series of four letters. I fell in love with Marine Guy because of some important things we have in common, the way he made me feel, and because he is a great dad. Also, he’s hot, so there’s that. And, frankly, because my intuition said, “this one.” And when I whispered back, “Are you sure?” It said, “YES.”. But it does help to know, for example, that his personality type shows love through care-giving. Suddenly, his acute concern over whether I’d be able to get the dryer hooked up while he was away and unable to do it for me made a little more sense. And my type goes some way toward explaining why I’m not the one to say “I love you” first.

Are you a Myer’s Briggs enthusiast? Have you found it helpful in life and relationships? And if you’re a true aficionado, do you want to take a crack at type-casting famous romance heroes and heroines?

Posted in AAR Blythe, Book news, Relationships | 14 Comments

Searching for the Past in Present Day London

west-end-1800My imagination is a fickle thing. You would think that, as a voracious reader, it would be well developed and up to the task of imagining character’s faces, clothing, and homes. Sadly, no matter that I’ve spent most of my life exercising this muscle, I rarely manage to do more than produce a vague, blurry image in my mind of whatever is happening in my latest novel. I don’t know what other people imagine when they read—I sincerely hope that they have clearer images than I do.

Of course, it’s much easier to picture everything when you have a point of reference, when you’ve actually visited the location in question. Ever since I moved to New York City a few years ago, my entire experience of reading books set in the city has improved. I know what Central Park looks like now, can picture the sidewalks characters are walking on, etc. This is why, when the opportunity arose for me to take a two month study tour in London, I jumped at the chance. Finally, I thought. Finally I’ll get the chance to actually see for myself all of the classic Regency London sights.

You know what I’m talking about. It seems to me that most every book about Regency London includes the very same venues: Almack’s, Hyde Park, White’s Club are probably the main three seen in almost every Regency romance. Beyond that, though, it seems that every couple getting married without the benefit of a special license (which, honestly, isn’t many) gets married in St. George’s, and everyone with a town home seems to live in Mayfair. Women all go shopping on Bond Street, men all buy their horses at Tattersall’s, and most people seem to make it out to the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens at some point in time.

I’m generalizing, of course. I don’t mean to say that every book set in Regency London is the same, or that there are no authors who do research and provide extra details about the locales their characters are visiting. It’s simply that I’ve lately realized just how many books I’ve read have mentioned these same locations and that I seem to know far too little about them.

Did you know, for instance, that Almack’s began as, essentially, a version of White’s that allowed women in? Did you know that White’s Club is still open today? Have you ever stopped to ponder exactly how it is that so many people were able to squeeze entire houses complete with ballrooms into Mayfair? (To be honest, I still can’t wrap my head around that concept.) I’ve read a number of books where authors simply mention these generally accepted sights of Regency London, barely even describing them and essentially assuming we readers just know what they are already. It’s my understanding that the appearance of such sights in Regency romances can be attributed to Georgette Heyer—as a pioneer of the genre, she set an important example for all subsequent authors.

I do like it, though, when authors manage to mention other interesting parts of London, presumably from their own research. In Julia Quinn’s Romancing Mr. Bridgerton, for instance, the heroine makes a trip to a little-known church in London called St. Bride’s. Simple details like this make the setting feel more real and less like the generic, blurry London of my imagination. Maybe I’ll even stop by St. Bride’s if I’m in the area, just to see if it looks like Ms. Quinn described it.

For now, though, I’m busily preparing to explore as much of the city as I can. I intend to walk down Rotten Row in Hyde Park and imagine lords and ladies driving by those same trees in their curricles. I will walk by White’s Club and the site where Almack’s used to be (it was destroyed in 1944), and maybe I’ll meander down Bond Street to see if there are any interesting shops still there.

What about you? Are there places you think authors should mention more when writing about Regency London? Are there any sights you’ve read about and now dream of seeing?

–Alexandra

 

 

 

Posted in Alexandra AAR, Historicals, Romance, Settings | 10 Comments

TBR Challenge: You Can’t Have Just One

iwantitthatway Shamefully huge TBR pile? Oh check. And yes, I am waay behind on my non-review reading and so finding an author with more than one book on the stack for this month’s challenge was no problem. I’m not a huge NA reader, but I do like Ann Aguirre’s writing and so I had picked up I Want It That Way last fall. My Kindle got stolen while I was still about a chapter and a half shy of finishing the book, so I hesitate to give this book at proper grade. However, unless things go seriously off the rails at the ending, so far we’ve got a solid B. I’ll no longer be e-readerless after tomorrow, so this book is the first thing I’ll be finishing and I’ll do a final grade/review on my Goodreads page.

This book is first in a trilogy about college housemates in Michigan. Nadia, the heroine of this book, works hard in school and also works hard at a local daycare. As the book opens, she and her friends are moving into their apartment and Nadia has a chance meeting with their downstairs neighbor. These chance meetings start morphing into something deeper as Nadia and Ty start having evening chats on their respective outdoor decks.

Nadia learns that Ty works and also attends college, all while raising a four-year-old son as a single father. The connection deepens and starts to move beyond balcony chats when Ty enrolls his son at the daycare where Nadia works. Their love story is at once adorable and also a bit gritty. Each has difficulties to work through, and we see Nadia and Ty both learning how committed they will have to be to make a relationship work. Their story is often romantic, but not always pretty. It’s good stuff, though. Continue reading

Posted in Book news, Caz AAR, Lynn AAR, Romance reading | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Maya Rodale talks about Dangerous Books for Girls

Dangerous-Books-For-Girls-big-400x600I was at an absurdly hip underground pop-up dinner (eleven tiny courses based around the 1968 Volkswagen bus) and seated across from a couple both of whom were cancer researchers. In the midst of a discussion about Americans’ (mis)perception of what modern medicine can cure, the man stopped to ask me what I did. I said, among other things, I was a publisher at a website that reviewed and discussed romance novels. It was as if I’d said I made hats for leprechauns, he stared at me with such disbelief. I continued to smile. He asked why I’d do such a thing. The conversation became strained –I tried to remain well-mannered as he talked about 50 Shades and the vapidity of the genre–and he finally started an argument with his wife over his choice not to eat the itty bitty handcrafted creamsicle we were given as the last course. Our conversation was apparently over.

I wish I’d had a copy of Maya Rodale’s Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. I’d have handed it over and said, “Read this and get back to me.” (I really like this book.) I wanted to know more about the issues raised in the book so I contacted the author. Maya kindly agreed to answer my questions.


Dabney: So, you wrote this non-fiction book. Why? Did you have one too many experiences like the one I describe above?

Maya: When my mom first suggested that I read romance novels, I laughed at her. And when I finally got over myself, I started to wonder why. How did I know that these books were something to be mocked? So Dangerous Books For Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained is my answer to that question.

I actually haven’t had any truly horrid conversations about romance novels like the one you describe. In general, I’ve found that people are really, really curious about the genre. Even when they recite the tired tropes (Fabio! 50 Shades! Bodice Rippers!) it’s just because that’s all they know. I like to think I’ve opened some minds about the romance genre just by being open about my reading and writing of it. But at the same time, I think we’re all afraid of those horrid encounters. So we don’t speak up. So those tired old ideas don’t get replaced with new ones that better represent the genre today.

Dabney: You begin the book by talking about Fabio. The famous cover model’s name comes up over and over when you tell people you write romance novels. You write:

“So when the subject of romance novels— and all those knotty issues— comes up, we talk about Fabio instead of women’s orgasms or men’s feelings. We laugh about Fabio’s very fitted breeches instead of asking who is watching the children or cooking dinner while a woman reads privately for pleasure or writes a romance novel or is out at work. Simply by picking one up, she is refusing, if only for a chapter, her traditional role of caring for others, and in doing so she declares that she is important. It’s easier to talk about Fabio’s pectoral muscles than to talk about how successful women can be when they’re working and working together. It’s easier to laugh about the bodice Fabio is ripping than to have an honest discussion about women’s sexual pleasure or to even acknowledge women’s sexual desires. After all, sex isn’t polite cocktail party conversation.”

Tell me some about the knotty issues romance raises.

Maya: There are so many! There is the fact these books celebrate women in a culture that doesn’t value women. They declare that it’s totally okay for women to have desire and enjoy sexual pleasure. Romance novels also promote an alternative idea of masculinity that allows men to experience emotions without losing strength. Romance novels are feminist. They promote equality. They explore class issues, how love and money are tangled up, and what gender roles are and just how to be happy.

AND they explore all these ideas from a female point a view for an audience of women in a culture that just wants women to be seen and not heard.

Dabney: The chapter on the connection between romance writers and publishing innovation is fascinating. As far back as the eighteenth century women have been earlier adopters and creators of practices that later became the norms in mainstream publishing. Who are some examples of Lady Authors who have been hugely influential?

Maya: The names that immediately come to mind are the Big Names: Jane Austen, Kathleen Woodiwiss, E.L. James. Or there were insanely popular authors who we have completely forgotten about now, like E.D.E.N. Southworth.

But what I think is most powerful about the romance genre is its mass, for lack of a better word. It’s all those “little” or “regular” (for lack of better words) authors who innovate, perhaps out of necessity, perhaps in just small ways, and who build on the work of other Lady Authors. It’s all those voices who get to be heard. Taken all together, these authors become a force to be reckoned with and can drive large scale change in the industry.

Dabney: You have a chapter on the enduring appeal of the alpha male hero in romance where you explore the nuances behind the stereotype. One thing you don’t discuss is the role money plays in defining the alpha male. It sometimes seems every other contemporary hero is a billionaire. I attribute this to the idea money is power. Do you agree? Why are there so many uber-rich in romance?

Maya: I think rich heroes aren’t about money at all. What’s sexy about these guys isn’t their bank account, but the qualities that led them to be so successful in the first place: intelligence, ambition, a strong work ethic. Even if it’s inherited money, they often grapple with how to prove themselves, how to earn it and how to “own it” so to speak. So I don’t think it’s just about the bank account, but that serves as a shorthand way of communicating the character to readers. Yes, power is definitely a part of it.

I also think, in general, the reason we love to read about wealthy characters in our fantasy fiction is because it allows us to not think about money, which is a stressor most of us deal with every day. When our characters don’t have to worry about paying the electric bill, we (the characters and by extension the readers) can focus more deeply on emotional issues, sexual exploration, understanding identity, etc.

And it maybe over simplistic, but it’s worth saying: romance novels are escape and entertainment. We want to be whisked away to a five star hotel with a hot man and not worry about paying for it.

Dabney: In your chapter about covers you quote fellow author Courtney Milan who says “If you go back long enough, before we had such a thing as covers for books, people were still making fun of books written by women about female concerns…. “I think it doesn’t matter what the content is. I think it doesn’t matter what the covers are.” Do you agree with her? Why or why not?

Maya: I completely agree with Courtney on this. Romance had a bad reputation hundreds of years before Fabio happened, before books even had covers. Seriously—they were sold in plain paper or cardboard wrapping and if you were rich, you had it bound in leather. But these books were still scorned because they were novels and because they were by women and women read them.

We like to think it’s the covers that give the genre the bad rap, rather than the content. And we like to think that if the covers changed—if Fabio would just put his shirt on, if that girl would just get a dress that fit and if that stallion in the background would just calm the fuck down—then the genre would finally get some respect.

But I think it’s the other way around—I think the covers have a bad reputation because they happen to be on books by women, about women, for women. Those old pulp fiction covers are just as over the top, but in a “cool” way. Are science fiction covers any less ridiculous?

Dabney: Women seem to be slowly–very slowly–making gains in film. In a recent New York Times article, columnist Frank Bruni wonders if as women achieve more equality in the amount of screen time that equality is “the opportunity to be as profane, inane, lewd, bloodied and bloodying as men are.” In your chapter on heroines, you explore how romance allows women to be, well, real women. Can you think of any film heroines–other than Clare in Outlander–who could have come from a well-written romance novel?

Maya: Confession: I don’t see a lot of movies so I don’t think I can name many names here (but I hope other people can so I can go see those movies). But I have noticed the trend of film heroines getting to be as “profane, inane, lewd, bloodied and bloodying as men.” But what I really see, with the female leads in movies like Bridesmaids, Hunger Games, Gone Girl, or Wild, is that the heroine can be heroic even if she doesn’t have to have her shit together. She doesn’t have to be cute, perky, perfect, or “deserving” of good things. It’s like she’s the anti Meg Ryan Rom Com character who wore sweater sets and had her 401(K) figured out. So, this new heroine can be profane and inane and insane whatever. She can be…unlikeable.

We have a bunch of those heroines in romance, to be sure. But I think we still have some work to do with accepting “unlikeable” heroines who make choices we would never make or do things we disagree with. Megan Mulry wrote an amazing blog about this. I suspect that as we see these types of heroines be so successful, we’ll see more of them.

Dabney: And then there’s shame, something you believe romance readers routinely feel. Shame is a powerful word and yet it seems apt. Why hasn’t the success of the romance industry translated into pride on the part of readers? Is it because of how others make them feel? Because of the messages women have internalized about love and sex? Both? Something else entirely?

Maya: Of the romance readers I surveyed, 50% feel they should keep their romance reading a secret and 36% are only “out” with certain people. Just the other day, a woman I would have never guessed was a romance reader said she was ashamed to let people know she read them. And my younger sister said people scoff when they find out her sister writes romance novels. No wonder so many readers don’t talk about it—it opens them up to so much criticism and judgment. It’s easier to just stay quiet.

But there’s the rub: I think mocking romance novels is really about mocking the ideas they promote about women’s agency, empowerment, and pleasure (among other things). And I think making readers feel ashamed of reading these books keeps them quiet and scares off would-be readers. It’s another way of trying to silence women and the idea that they deserve love, respect and happiness.

So what to do? Try to be one of the 57% of readers love the genre and don’t care who knows it. Be out and proud, engage in conversation and change the perceptions.

(PS: survey data is available at www.dangerousbooksforgirls.com/surveys)

Dabney: What was one of the most interesting things you learned while you were researching this book?

Maya: One fact that comes to mind is from the book The Reading Nation in The Romantic Period by William St Clair: in the 18th and 19th centuries, as many as a third of all novels were “by a lady.” A third! To me this just highlights the long history of women writing for women. It may be derided or critically ignored, but still we write and publish the stories we want to read, no matter the circumstances. I love that.

Dabney: What has the response been?

Maya: The response has been awesome. What has surprised me most is that I’ve received a bunch of speaking requests because of this book (Check out my events! Join me!)—and they’re not all from romance groups either. In fact, they’re mostly not from romance groups. This tells me that people are really curious about romance novels and interested in having this conversation. This is a good thing.

Dabney: Lastly, what are you writing now and did the work you did on this book influence your current prose?

Maya: I’m working on a new series for Avon about an American family that unexpectedly inherits a dukedom in Regency England. Romance and hilarity ensues. Naturally. (More details are available on my website).

Since writing Dangerous Books For Girls, I’ve become hyper aware of how I write my heroines. The women and stories I’m writing now aren’t overtly feminist—they’re not campaigning for the vote or going to work in Regency England, for example—but I’m trying to explore the quiet, every day feminism of a woman learning discovering their own strength, value, desire and getting to be loved for it. I want to explore and share the idea that every woman and “the everywoman” character deserve to live a happy, satisfying life.

Dabney: Thanks for chatting with me, Maya. Romance readers, Dangerous Books for Girls is a gift. Check it out!


Maya Rodale began reading romance novels in college at her mother’s insistence. She is now the bestselling and award winning author of numerous smart and sassy romance novels. A champion of the genre and its readers, she is also the author of the non-fiction book Dangerous Books For Girls: The Bad Reputation Of Romance Novels, Explained and a co-founder of Lady Jane’s Salon, a national reading series devoted to romantic fiction. Maya lives in New York City with her darling dog and a rogue of her own. Her most recent romance novel is What a Wallflower Wants

Posted in Authors, Dabney AAR, Defining Romance, Interviews, Publishing, Romance reading, Romancelandia | Tagged | 8 Comments

A Guest Pandora’s Box: Ginn Hale’s Lord of White Hell

Hello everyone and welcome to our monthly AAR blog column. The basic idea is we choose a book every month and have a discussion about it. We being Elisabeth Lane (of Cooking Up Romance), a long-time romance reader who now creates recipes inspired by books and then blogs about it, and Alexis Hall (author of, most recently, Waiting for the Flood), relative newcomer to the romance genre and occasional writer.

Today we’re joined by Willaful – yay! Willaful writes for Heroes & Heartbreakers and you can find her on her own blog here.

And we’re going to be talking about Ginn Hale’s two-part fantasy novel, Lord of the White Hell.

The story centres on Kiram Kir-Zaki, the first of his people to be admitted to a prestigious Cadeleonian boarding school. Cue: plots and swordplay and religious intrigue oh my. Plus love and friendship and the clash between cultures as Kiram falls in with a Javier Tornesal, a cursed Cadeleonian Duke, and his band of rapscallions.


 

Elisabeth: I’m so excited that Willaful is joining in our chat about Lord of the White Hell today. Say hi Willa!

Willa: Hi, everyone! I was wondering if you guys brought me in for this one because you know I love m/m romance in classic literature contexts. If so — well played! I was flashing back to Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall series, and other boarding school fantasies I loved as an adolescent. It’s all there: the strict class system, the bullying of the outsider, the misfit finding his place in the social structure (which almost always comes at a cost.) The explicit sex is new, of course!

AJH: Yes. *shifty look* That was exactly why we brought you in. Actually, it was partly your known fondness for queered-up stories – so there’s definitely some sort of method in our madness. Occasionally. LotWH really was like one of those classic school stories, wasn’t it? I was basically characterising it as “gay Tamora Pierce” while I was reading.

Elisabeth: Though the sex is quite a bit more explicit in this one than in the YA fantasy I remember from my youth. It took me by surprise actually.

Willa: Anne McCaffrey only wished she was this hot. It didn’t shock me though; the sexual tension was built up so well, the actual sex just flowed naturally from it.

AJH: Oh gosh, I’m jaded. Maybe I’m just used to m/m being explicit-by-default. I noticed there was more sex than in typical YA fantasy but it’s … very sweet, isn’t it? Like I would be perfectly happy for A Young Human to read it. It felt refreshing to me — not flinching away from the fact that teenagers who love each other are probably going to have lots and lots of sex, but always grounding that sex in emotion and tenderness and comradeship and passion.

Elisabeth: Oh, I agree with you. It was lovely. And it’s definitely what I would have loved to have read when I was a teenager. It conformed a lot better to the average teen experience than the sweet kissing and fade-to-black scenes I recall. Or maybe I was just reading really tame stuff? And I don’t really read any YA now except the very popular things that get made into movies so I’m sure the standards have changed in the 20 years since then.

Willa: I think most mainstream YA is still relatively tame. But I agree, the sex scenes are lovely and appropriate. “Explicit” kind of has the wrong connotation, really.

AJH: Yes, it’s hard to know how to categorise it. I thought it was kind of important, in a way, because there’s a prevailing sense of queer-intimacy being inherently more … God what’s the word … challenging? than het-intimacy. Like you often see things getting classified differently if they’re queer. Or it’s perceived as somehow more harmful for children to learn about queer sex than it is for them learn about hetsex. And so on. But, errr, sex aside, how did you find it?

Willa: I thought it was an exhilarating read. The writing isn’t particularly lush or lyrical; its strength is in the dialogue, the characters, the exciting story, and the excellent pacing. The thrilling parts are balanced with dialogue and friendly interaction, the angst with humor

Elisabeth: I agree with you. The characterization of Kiram in particular was really well done, I thought. He’s clearly outside the structures of this other society. He doesn’t fit in, pretty much in any way because he’s a different race and he’s gay, which is normal in his culture, but very much not okay in the culture he’s found himself in. And he’s an intellectual rather than this very physical warrior-like guy like most of the other boys.

Willa: I loved that culture clash! Kiram has so much inner strength because of his background.

AJH: I also loved the fact he learns to be effective at the physical warrior-stuff as well. Not in a superhero way and he’s never going to be the toughest guy in the room, but I liked how it subtly deconstructed those sort of ideas about masculinity and strength. What makes you good in a fight is being taught how to be good in a fight. Even if you’re a slender, perceived-to-be-effeminate guy. Again, it reminded me a lot of Alanna learning to be a badass and how to play to her speed over her strength.

Elisabeth: I really enjoyed how, like Jonathan and Alanna in the Lioness books, Javier tutoring Kiram in horsemanship and fighting helps them to develop their friendship and, ultimately, their romantic relationship. Putting them in close physical proximity to each other doesn’t hurt, of course, but it also gave them both something to work toward–a mutual goal.

Willa: The tutoring also played into the school system of an upperclassman taking care of “his” underclassman; that aspect of the system allowed them to be together in a very intimate way, despite the strictures of Javier’s society. It’s almost like a built-in loophole.

Elisabeth: Plus, they’re roommates, which is convenient.

Willa: Yes, but they also get to be visibly, publicly intimate — such as when Kiram serves as Javier’s squire in the tournaments.

Elisabeth: I did start to feel a bit toward the end that the relentless disapproval of men having romantic relationships with other men started to get a bit tired. Especially when it came to some of Javier and Kiram’s other friends. I wanted to see them, I don’t know, get some acceptance from someone. I was quite sad for them.

AJH: Willa hasn’t read the second book yet, so I won’t over-labour it — but I do feel some of these issues were re-visited and sort of complicated over time. In the sense that although the Haldiim are open to same-sex relationships, they’re still restrictive in other ways (arranged marriage, for example). And there is clearly some degree of acceptance from some corners of Cadeleonian society. But it’s weirdly one of the difficult things about depicting social repression in imagined worlds. I think both cultures are very effectively constructed but … bigotry has a long and complex history in the real world, and it necessarily becomes simplified when you try to replicate it in a fully imagined setting.

Willa: And the setting is kind of cobbled together from various real world cultures and histories, I thought.

Elisabeth: I think there’s an element of that with a lot of fantasy. In the Lioness books (again, sorry) you get the Bazhir tribesmen, for instance. I guess it helps to be able to pin fictional elements to real-world knowledge? Though there’s also a danger of saying something you didn’t intend to when a story does that. For example, I found some of Javier’s comments on the Kiram’s coloring rather off-putting on occasion. It felt othering, which is, well, not so helpful in getting me to like him. And that’s just one example.

Willa: The characters clearly inspired by “gypsies” were uncomfortable to read about, as well.

Elisabeth: Yes. Did they have to be portrayed as “dirty” all the time? By both the Haldiim and the Cadeleonians?

Willa: And while we’re talking discomforts, there’s a lot of unpleasant references to fatness. People are described as “meaty,” “doughy,” etc. It doesn’t get up to Diana Wynne Jones levels of nastiness, thank goodness. (I love Jones, but I wish I could’ve sat her down for a heart-to-heart on that topic.  Not that it would likely have done any good.)

AJH: Ah, fat people are always evil in fantasy. Urgh. I do see your point about the potentially-Gypsy-inspired people – although I think, at the time, I read it as kind of internal prejudice, if that makes sense? Since the more bourgeois Haldiim are equally dismissive of the priests. I just thought it contributed to a sense of Haldiim culture being more than ‘one’ thing–which, to me, is usually a sign of good world-building.

Elisabeth: And in general, the world-building was more effective for me in these books than the romance.

AJH: I enjoyed the romance, for sure, but as one part of this quite convoluted story. There is a lot going on in this book – many mysteries and plot threads. What did you find less effective about the romance?

Elisabeth: Honestly, I just wanted to like Javier more than I did. Here’s this rich, powerful, privileged, gorgeous, magical guy who pretty much acts like that kind of guy would be expected to act. And I felt like he never really got past that in a way. Certainly not in the first half of the book. I just couldn’t see what smart, beautiful Kiram saw in in him. Like, what was he getting out of that relationship?

Willa: My one line summary of Javier: He’s the kind of romance hero whose name will always start with a J. With him, we start to get into Cassandra Clare comparisons. He’s hot and cursed and tormented, therefore the hero.

AJH: I’m dying right now. Alphas, betas, heroes-whose-names-begin-with-J. But, to look at it more charitably, the J hero is clearly an effective type of hero for this kind of book. I mean he’s essentially the unattainable prefect, isn’t he? Or the boy equivalent of the prom queen or the head cheerleader. And we are kind of sitting here going “he’s rich, powerful, privileged, gorgeous, magical, cursed tormented … OMG WHAT DOES KIRAM SEE IN HIM.” I agree it’s not a balanced relationship, in the sense that, no, in actual “hey, will you do the dishes today” terms, I can’t see that relationship working, or Kiram getting much out of it (least of all the dishes done). But I think as a type of romantic hero, especially for a teenage protagonist, Javier works.

Willa: Oh, he worked fine for me. (For that matter, I love Cassandra Clare’s books.) And I do think there’s more balance than you might normally see in such a relationship. I love that Kiram’s experience, and comfort with his own desires, give him an edge in their sexual relationship. And he’s very strong and sure in himself in general. Javier would seem to hold all the power in their relationship, but Kiram continually asserts himself, sometimes physically pushing Javier back, other times pointedly talking about what he needs.

AJH: Yes, I liked that a lot. The balance of sexual experience between them and the whole idea of that ‘type’ of character being queered. It’s narratively satisfying to me, but not emotionally satisfying. If that distinction makes sense.

Elisabeth: And you know me, I’m not the kind of reader that demands perfect redemption from my romance heroes, but where there isn’t, I tend to prefer that their partner go into that relationship with their eyes open just a little wider than Kiram’s seemed to be. I couldn’t get over it.

Willa: Oh, I see Kiram’s eyes as very open. He knows he’s the one taking all the risks.

Elisabeth: I think that’s true with respect to the cultural ramifications of their relationship, but I’m not sure that’s true of the emotional ones. Javier has limits and Kiram didn’t really get that as well as I would have hoped.

Willa: That’s pretty much romance standard. Characters go in trying to protect their hearts, but it never works.Going back to what Alexis said before, I also really appreciated how much there is to the story other than romance. The fantasy, the cultural aspects, the quest — which I hope/assume will be carried out in book Two.

AJH: Again, I don’t want to harp on about book Two too much, but there’s definitely a lot more exploration of the two cultures. I felt the romance stayed on kind of a level though? Like it has a few ups and downs, as romance plots do, but I never really felt that any of the things Elisabeth mentions were … addressed, let alone resolved. Or, rather, circumstance temporarily renders them irrelevant.

Willa: That sounds unsatisfying. Maybe I should quit while I’m ahead?

AJH: I’m not sure unsatisfying is entirely fair. Like, I was happy with the way the plot went and the ending itself. But it wasn’t the second part I was expecting, if that makes sense? The first book is so very much a school story, so I was invested in that and looking forward to more school stuff, but the stakes are so much higher by book Two that they basically just have to get on with their lives.

Elisabeth: I don’t think I was reacting as much to wanting to get back to school (since it’s sort of like the end of Harry Potter that way), as I was wanting, maybe, a third book. One that showed who these two remarkable people become outside of this major crisis. And if their relationship can survive … dishes.

AJH: I wonder if that’s just the imposition of an adult perspective though. In the sense that I often have to stop myself asking those questions for YA and NA relationships because I’m … well … I’m thirty and my sense of what’s important is crazily different to what I believed about relationships when I was sixteen.

Elisabeth: Right. So in that way, I’m very aware of not being the audience for this book.

Willa: I guess I’m old enough that I’ve come around again! I was able to be in the story without thinking too much about potential futures, other than wondering how the hell they’ll manage to be together in this homophobic society.

AJH: Well, that’s the thing. The book deliberately makes you ask these questions. And we won’t spoil the answers for you. :) Do we have any final thoughts for people?

Elisabeth: I was just reflecting on how much the Tamora Pierce books meant to me as a preteen and I could definitely see these books filling a similar role for teenagers now.

Willa: If you enjoy school set fantasies and angsty romance, this is a lot of fun.

AJH: Agreed, I really enjoyed it. I wish I could go back in time about fifteen years and give it to myself.

It was wonderful to have Willaful with us today. And we hope you’ll join us in comments to talk more about the book.


If you want to read-along at home, next month we’ll be looking at: Girl Next Door by Amy Jo Cousins.

 

Thanks,

Elisabeth and Alexis

 

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