An interview with Sharon Cullen

Sharon Cullen’s latest book, His Saving Grace, is a moving story featuring a loving couple who have to find a way to live together again after one partner – the husband – suffers a traumatic injury.  HSG

Lord Michael Ashworth left his home and his beloved wife, Grace, almost a year earlier, to join his regiment in the Crimea.  Some months later, Grace receives the devastating news that Michael has been killed – only to have him reappear on her doorstep without warning several months later.  While she is overjoyed to see him, it doesn’t take her long to realise that all is not well – and thus begins the couple’s journey towards remaking their life together.

It’s an emotional and sometimes difficult read, but I nonetheless enjoyed it very much, and wanted to learn more about the inspiration for the book. I’m very pleased to welcome Sharon Cullen to All About Romance.

Sharon: Thank you so much for having me and I’m thrilled that you enjoyed Michael and Grace’s story. I’m so glad you reached out to me and asked me to do an interview.

Caz: One thing that stood out as I was reading is that this is obviously a story that is very close to your heart.  What or who was your inspiration for the book?

Sharon: The inspiration for Michael and Grace came from my own life and from my husband who suffers from a traumatic brain injury. Michael and my husband are a lot alike and Grace and I are a lot alike but they are also very different. It’s hard to explain other than Michael is based on my husband but he is not my husband.

Traumatic brain injuries (any traumatic injuries for that matter) affect not only the injured but everyone surrounding the injured—the spouse, the children, friends and close family. Every aspect of your life is shaken to the core and that was what I wanted to portray in His Saving Grace.

Caz: Such a very personal story must have been a difficult one to contemplate.  Was there any one thing that set you going, or was it a combination of things?

Sharon: It took a few years for me to write this book. I started and stopped so many books with heroes who had traumatic brain injuries but none of them seemed right. It wasn’t until I started writing historical romance (rather than contemporary romance) that I realized the mistake I’d been making. Every time I started writing a contemporary romance with a hero with a brain injury the science kept getting in the way. Obviously we know so much more today than we did two hundred years ago when it comes to the workings of the brain. I kept getting caught up in all of that instead of what I wanted to concentrate on—the effect of the injury on those involved.

When I thought about writing this story as a historical I knew I’d found the right characters. I had to do a little research to discover what was known about the brain during different time periods. The Victorian time period seemed to fit the best and so that’s when I set the story. Doctors knew a little about the brain, but not nearly as much as we know now. Basically Grace and Michael were on their own dealing with the after-effects. Once that was all established the story just flowed.

Caz: Because of the personal nature of the story, did your writing process change, or did you find you could approach it in the same way as any of your other books?

Sharon: The writing process did change a bit. I had to do very little research with this book other than what I didn’t know about the Victorian time period. When it came to researching the effects of a brain injury I didn’t have to do any research at all and therefore I didn’t get caught up in the minutiae that I sometimes get caught up in. You could say that this book almost wrote itself.

Caz: I know from our interactions that you’re keen to raise awareness of the problems faced by those suffering from and caring for sufferers of TBIs (Traumatic Brain Injuries).  Having based the novel loosely on your own experience, could you tell us a little more?

 Sharon: On May 9, 2011 my husband took our Labrador retriever out for a bicycle ride. They had been doing this for years. My husband would hold the leash and the dog would run beside the bike. They both loved it. But this time something happened and to this day we still don’t know what that was. All we know is that a witness saw my dog run into the middle of the street and sit down to stop traffic. It was then she noticed my husband on the sidewalk lying beside the bike, semi-conscious. He was rushed to the closest hospital. By the time I arrived the helicopter had been called to air lift him to the closest trauma hospital. He had shattered his skull in two places and had to have part of it removed to allow for the swelling of the brain. He was in a coma for nine days, in neuro ICU for eleven days and in a rehabilitation hospital for fourteen days. He had to relearn how to walk, talk, feed himself and dress himself.

Like Michael he was not the same man who left for that bike ride. He was angry and withdrawn. At first he needed constant care and he was in outpatient therapy for five months which required my presence as well since he couldn’t drive and he couldn’t remember things five minutes after he was told.

Like Grace I was suddenly shoved into the role of caregiver and I had no idea what I was doing or what I could do help him. What I did know was that I would do whatever it took and together we would get through this.

No one recovers 100% from a brain injury and that was one of the things I wanted to stay true to in His Saving Grace. I didn’t want a miraculous healing because there is no such thing with traumatic brain injuries.

But you can learn to live with it and to move forward to live a full, happy life and THAT’S what I wanted the reader to come away with.

Caz: Well, I think you’ve succeeded admirably.  I certainly came away from the book feeling as though Michael and Grace were going to make it as a couple, even though they were facing a long period of adjustment.

Sharon: Yes! I’m so glad that’s what you took away from this book. By their very nature romance books have a happily ever after. I wanted to show that you can still be happy and have a promising future despite the fact that you’re living with something like this. Like I said earlier, no one recovers 100% from a brain injury and I wanted to stay true to that while still giving the characters and the readers hope that Grace and Michael would live a happy life.

Caz: I enjoyed the book very much, but I think it’s fair to say that while it’s certainly very romantic, it’s not a romance in the traditional sense – you know, boy meets girl. boy and girl fall in love and then move towards their HEA.  Did that fact present any particular problems?

Sharon: There are plenty of romances that start with a couple already married and who face hardship. I think what makes this book so different is that Grace and Michael’s hardships are ones that aren’t normally explored in a romance. Most of the disabled heroes I’ve read have lost a limb or an eye or maybe have a disfiguring scar. I don’t believe I’ve ever read of a hero who has a brain injury.

Caz: I don’t think I have, either – or not one incurred under the same circumstances.

 Sharon: But did it present me any particular problems while writing this story? No. Because at its heart, this book is still a romance. This is still a story about two people trying to find their way to love. In a lot of ways I consider Michael’s injured brain the villain of the story. Every story has to have a villain, right? This one is a little different—silent and invisible and not to be slayed as easily as a human villain. But this villain still needs to be overcome and I hope that’s what the reader comes away with.

Caz: Were you ever worried that you were writing a story readers might find overly depressing or unpalatable?

Sharon: I know I deal with things that aren’t normally mentioned in a romance—depression and the fact that whatever is ailing Michael will never be fixed—and that’s exactly what I set out to do when I started writing His Saving Grace.   There are definitely parts that are depressing and I do force the reader to face some things that are difficult, but I never thought they were emotions that would turn the reader away. My hope was that rather than depressing the reader I would make the reader cheer for Michael and Grace and want to continue reading to achieve that happily ever after.

Caz: Was there one particular point at which you thought – “okay – now I have to write this story”?  Or was it something that crept up on you?

Sharon: It took me three years to finally sit down and write this story even though my friends had been telling me from the beginning that I needed to write a story like this. I waited that long because I had to help my husband heal and then I discovered that I needed to heal as well. It was very difficult to dig deep and dredge up all of those emotions but it was so worth it. There were times as I was writing and Grace’s heart was breaking that mine was breaking all over again as well. There were times when Grace was feeling helpless that I was experiencing that same helplessness but never once did I consider not writing this story.

Caz: Sharon, thanks so much for joining us today and for sharing such a personal story with our readers.

Caroline: Why I won’t be contributing to any Best of 2014 lists

MSDespite the fact that I read a large number of books this year, and that I posted several DIKs, I can’t contribute to “Best of 2014” lists. Why? Most of my reads aren’t from 2014. Nearly every 2014 romance I read this year was for for review here, and I didn’t have enough that I loved to vote meaningfully. I’m a huge reader, but for a variety of reasons, a few of which I’ll list below, I’m simply not a new-book reader.

Review filters: I admit to freeloading off of the rest of you: I wait for AAR reviewers, or the forums, or other review sites to generate some buzz around a book before I check it out. I hoard both my time and my budget, and I want not to waste them on lousy reads.

Space and cost: I’m a book hoarder, so I decided a few years back not to buy books unless I’m sure I will want to reread them. I lean on my library heavily, but that can mean signing up for long waitlists or placing an ordering request. Either of these done any time after July can take a popular 2014 book into 2015. This not only saves me money on books I realize I don’t want to keep, but it also saves me money because by waiting, I can sometimes find a book in a UBS, bargain bin, or online. I know, I know – it’s not good for authors, and I do try to buy their new books when I’m sure I want them. But on the whole, I’m selfish here.

Graphic novels: While every now and then, I get a manga while it is still in English-translation release (this year I read Midnight Secretary and Library Wars), I usually prefer to wait until the entire series is out. That’s for two reasons. First, I can’t always find out if the series is going to have a happy ending until the whole thing is out (marketing classifications for graphic novels are not the same as in genre fiction, and a central relationship is often enough to get them called “romance” no matter how they end). Second, I like to binge-read the entire work. Waiting months for Volume 3 and another year for the final Volume 11 drives me bonkers. Hardly any series comes out in full during a calendar year, and I don’t like to select just one volume for a “Best of” list when what I really enjoyed was the full work.

What about you guys? Do any of you feel left out of annual lists, and even the AAR annual poll? Or do you read enough new books to feel like you have something to say? If you don’t read new books, is it for the same reasons as me?

 

Caroline AAR

 

We’re Opening four Special Titles Listings!

BMWe hope you are all having a lovely time baking holiday treats and choosing gifts for the your friends and family. Hopefully there is also some time left for reading (although we know from experience this is not always the case in December). With everything being a bit busier than usual, we have decided to open this month’s Special Titles Listings late enough to extend until after the holidays. We’re hoping that if not straight away, you will find a moment to nominate some titles in the more quiet days.

When we looked at the lists this time, we realised with some astonishment that almost all of them have been opened and revised since we took up this task a bit more than two years ago. This means we will be able reopen some of the more popular lists quite soon. In the meantime, here are four more lists that have been neglected so far: All in the Family, Guardian/Ward Romances, Twins, and Plus-Sized Heroines.

The All in the Family list contains romances between relatives both by blood and by marriage. Quite a few of these books can be tricky in the eyes of the readers: In some cultures, for examples, marriages between first cousins is a taboo, whereas in others it isn’t. This means that as a reader from Central Europe I am just fine with Georgette Heyer’s Grand Sophy marrying her cousin Charles – especially since they never knew each other while growing up – but I know there are readers with different cultural backgrounds who find this difficult to swallow. In a similar vein, some readers find marriages problematic where one partner has been the lover/husband/wife of their new romantic interest in the past. On the other hand, the list also contains titles in which someone falls for a sibling’s best friend, for a step-sibling or an in-law. Reading how the dynamics of family play out in such romances can be great fun, and often they provide a more fully-fleshed cast of secondary characters than many romances do. If you nominate a title for this category, can you very kindly tell us how the characters are related (i.e. foster siblings or sibling’s best friend)?

Guardian/Ward romances can be difficult for modern sensibilities as well. Often they contain a relationship between a younger woman and a much older man. The obvious inequality of power can be further complicated by the rather problematic move from parental/filial emotions to sexual desire. This said, in a skilled hand they can work wonderfully well. As an example, take Georgette Heyer’s Regency Buck, where the hero is astonished to find himself guardian to a girl not much younger than himself, and is torn between his desires and the duties he needs to fulfil. In this list we also include romances with protagonists who take on a guardian-like role, like Georgette Heyer’s Frederica, so there does not have to be a strictly legal guardian/ward relationship.

Now Twins are fun (mostly). They can be found in any number of books where the twins in question play on the fact that nobody can tell them apart, and use this to get their own way. In a more serious vein, a twin may be asked to take on a sibling’s role as part of a criminal investigation – in the worst case, their twin is dead. Other books seriously explore the issues that may stem from being only part of a whole, and the development necessary to emancipate even from this close relationship.

The Plus-Sized Heroines list contains both characters who are curvy and who are unusually tall, so very kindly indicate this when you nominate a title! These heroines often feel inadequate or awkward due to their height and/or size, or in the case of being perfectly happy with themselves, they instead have to deal with rude remarks and preconceived notions from the people around them. They may further feel insecure when it comes to finding a romantic partner, because they do not fulfill the general ideal of female beauty.

We are looking very much forward to your nominations! In the meantime, take our heartfelt thanks for all the wonderful books you have contributed to these lists in 2014. We very much appreciate your input, and hope for more great suggestions in 2015!

- Rike Horstmann, LinnieGayl Kimmel, and Cindy Smith

 

TBR Challenge – Happy Holidays!

NTLMGI’m a Christmas story junkie (a confession surprising no one who reads my reviews, I’m sure), so for the last month of 2014′s multi-blog TBR challenge I decided to go after a different sort of holiday read. Why not Mardi Gras? And so I read Kimberly Lang’s No Time Like Mardi Gras. It’s only been on my Kindle since February 2014, but it still made me feel nostalgic. I’m pretty bummed that Harlequin is discontinuing their KISS line, as many of the books I read there have featured strong writing and a modern feel that belie the Pepto-pink covers.

No Time Like Mardi Gras isn’t the best of the KISS books I’ve read, but it’s not a bad book either. Since it seems to be a character-driven romance at heart, it really could have used a little more attention in the characterization department. That fix would have elevated it into the ranks of the some of the better humorous romances – the ones that manage to be both hilarious and poignant.

Or, perhaps it’s better stated that many of the best funny books tend to be memorably humorous because they’re poignant. Instead, I’d describe this read as fun but uneven,and I’d give it a B-.

Jamie Vincent moved to New Orleans to get a fresh start after her life pretty much went spiraling down the drain. However, getting settled in a new city with no network to depend on is a completely new experience for her and it’s not going all that well. Her roommate seems to be her one social outlet and so she’s third-wheeling it with the roommate at Mardi Gras while said roommate seems intent on watching a particular band play and hopefully hooking up with her crush from said band. It looks pretty bleak until she meets Colin Raine in a bar and he offers to show her to sights of Mardi Gras in the city.

The two have a fabulous time, and there’s more than a little bit of attraction going on there. When the two get separated by a crowd and then kept apart by a big misunderstanding, I was inclined to roll my eyes, but then the author does something a little bit different: Jamie and Colin talk it out. They don’t resolve everything perfectly and immediately but at least they start talking. Sadly, that’s a step up for many couples in Romanceland.

What ensues is a fun and sexy fling that gradually grows more serious. And most of the time it’s plenty of fun. Jamie’s issues from the great blowup of her past life(which she’s determined to keep as secret as possible for way too long) get a little tiresome, but given what her secrets are, I could understand why she’d react strongly even as I got irked with her on occasion. Colin’s a likable hero and in the end, he and Jamie seem like a fun couple. I totally did not get Jamie’s over-the-top obsession with all things Mardi Gras, but to each their own.

- Lynn Spencer
—————
xmasspirit Originally published in 1996, Patricia Wynn’s The Christmas Spirit is the whimsical tale of an elf who falls in love with a human. I always like a bit of whimsy at this time of the year, and this has that quality in spades, while also being romantic and sweetly sensual.

Sir Matthew Dunstone, a well-known explorer, has returned from an arduous trip searching for the source of the White Nile in the grip of a severe illness. To make matters worse, his fiancée has married his ex-partner, whose accounts of their trip have blackened Matthew’s name and ruined his reputation amongst the African Association, the society to which they both belong.

A broken man subject to bouts of fever induced hallucination, Matthew is not at all surprised to find himself talking to an elf one night. Thinking the sprightly apparition to be no more than the product of a disordered mind, Matthew is unperturbed and several conversations take place, during one of which the elf – Francis – tells Matthew about his sister, Gertrude (Trudy). The following night, Francis brings Trudy to see Matthew while he is sleeping. She immediately likes the look of the man who, despite his weakened state is obviously quite handsome, and when Francis wagers that she won’t be able to get him to follow her “into the mists”, she immediately takes the bet.

Shortly afterwards, Trudy takes human form and presents herself at Matthew’s house on the pretext of wanting him to make a donation to The Society for the Relief of Indigent African Natives. Matthew is not at all pleased at being disturbed, but is unable to take his eyes from the ravishing beauty with the devastating smile who introduces herself as Miss Faye Meriweather. And Trudy is surprised to discover that Matthew is far more handsome and imposing a man than she had previously thought – and also that in spite of her best efforts and most winsome smiles, he appears to be immune to her charms.

After his initial attempt to fob her off fails, Matthew begins to discover that perhaps there is something to be said for emerging from his self-imposed seclusion and, more than that, as the days pass, realises his health is drastically improving. In his dreams, he is visited by a female elf who bears a striking resemblance to Faye, a circumstance he puts down to the impure thoughts he is starting to entertain about that young lady who could, of course, never enter a gentleman’s bedchamber or sit on his bed tenderly stroking his hair. But Trudy’s touch is magical, and her nocturnal ministrations really are helping Matthew to regain his health and strength, which in turn, helps him to confront and dispel the rumours concerning his mental state and his supposedly dishonourable actions on his last trip.

Trudy is walking a dangerous path. While it’s all well and good for her to ensnare a human, to let things happen the other way around is unthinkable. A human in elven lands has much to gain – or so Francis thinks – whereas for an elf to fall for a human means she would lose her magic and begin to age in the same way that humans do. Francis reminds Trudy of their bet and her intention to enslave Matthew, but it’s too late. Trudy has fallen in love with a human and loves him far too much to consign him to a life beyond the mists as little more than a pet. There is no other way for them to be together – or is there? It’s Christmas after all, and the perfect time for dreams to come true.

The Christmas Spirit is a quick read, which fulfilled my desire for a quirky, fluffy story. The characterisation isn’t especially deep, and I have to say that other than the winter-time setting and a few mentions of Father Christmas, it doesn’t feel especially Christmassy either – but It’s light-hearted and entertaining and I enjoyed it, nonetheless. C+

- Caz Owens

LinnieGayl’s Favorite Mysteries of 2014

TSLong before I ever read romances, I was an avid mystery reader. My love of mysteries started as a child with Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew, and continues to this day. The mystery community handed out the bulk of its awards for “best of 2013” in November of 2014. As usual, I was nearly completely out of step with the awards; I either hadn’t read the award winners (and nominees) or disliked most of the ones I had read. So I’m going to get a jump on the 2014 award year – by at least 10 months – and pick my favorite mysteries published in 2014.

The Dead in their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley – Yes, once again the highlight of my mystery-reading year occurred in January with the latest in the Flavia de Luce mystery series featuring 11-year old Flavia, a would-be detective and serious chemist (with a particular love of poisons). Set in 1951 England, the series continues to delight me. I’ll admit I’m now counting down the weeks (and soon days) until the next book is released. This latest entry seems to wrap up one part of Flavia’s life, and I’m very curious to see where she ends up in the next book. I should note that I both read these in print and listen to them in audio, and cannot recommend highly enough the narration done by Jayne Entwistle; she’s absolutely delightful.

The Counterfeit Heiress by Tasha Alexander – This is the ninth in the author’s Lady Emily mystery series set in Victorian England. As always, Lady Emily and her husband Colin are at the center of the story, featuring the mysterious murder of a woman who turns out to be an imposter heiress. I love Lady Emily and Colin’s relationship with each other, and with their host of friends. I’m also very curious to see what happens in the next book, as Lady Emily seems to be developing an interest in Egypt.

Moriarty Returns a Letter by Michael Robertson – This is the fourth in a series featuring two brothers whose law offices are located at 221B Baker Street. As part of the lease agreement, they had to agree to respond to letters to Sherlock Holmes, which leads them to many interesting cases. I discovered the series this past year and feel the latest is the best in the series.

The Question of the Missing Head by E.J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen – This is the first in a series featuring Samuel Hoenig, a man with Asperger’s Syndrome, who runs a business entitled Questions Answered. It’s a new business, and his latest “question” to solve is to discover who stole a head from a cryonics institute. All of the main characters – including Samuel’s mother – are interesting, and parts of the mystery surprised me. I can’t wait for the second in the series. As a note, E.J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen are the same person.

That Summer by Lauren Willig – This is a standalone from the author most known for her Pink Carnation series. There is a slight nod to the series in that one of the characters has a distant connection to a character from the series. But this definitely stands on its own. Like her Pink Carnation series, it features a modern story (2009) and an historical story (1849). While there is no murder involved in the story, there’s a definite mystery about a pre-Raphaelite painting. I liked both the historical and modern parts, but found myself particularly interested in the modern story. The historical part is decidedly darker than the historical parts of the Pink Carnation series, but intriguing, particularly with the links to the pre-Raphaelite artists.

Silence for the Dead by Simone St. James – This is the author’s third book. While each of the books are set in the same time period (this one in 1919) and feature ghosts, they are all standalones. For me this is the darkest in the series, but also a completely engrossing mystery. The heroine — Kitty Weekes – lies about her identity and experiences and gets a job in a remote nursing home for shell-shocked soldiers. In addition to a particularly frightening ghost, the soldiers in the home have many secrets.

The Long Way Home by Louise Penny – In the author’s latest Armand Gamache mystery, the now retired Gamache is living in Three Pines – that virtually hidden small village in Quebec. I wasn’t sure where the author would go after the last mystery, as it seemed to resolve a number of story arcs. But in this latest book, she takes us back to many of the earlier books in the series and resolves some long-standing mysteries. I have come to love this series and cannot wait for the next. But the series features so much character development, and has so many linked stories that it absolutely must be read from the beginning.

The Outcast Dead by Elly Griffiths – This is the sixth in the author’s series featuring forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway. Ruth is an unusual main character; she’s grumpy, overweight, a bit of a loner, and is now a single mother of a young daughter. I found this to be much more interesting than the previous entry in the series, with parallel mysteries of mothers accused of the murder of their children in Victorian and present-day England.

The Harlot’s Taleby Sam Thomas – This is the second mystery featuring midwife Bridget Hodgson. Set in York in 1645, the story mixes a rather grizzly series of murders with information about life in York during the civil war. An historian, the author does a wonderful job conveying the history of the period while holding my interest in both the characters and the mystery.

That’s it, my top nine mysteries of 2014. Did you read any great mysteries you would recommend in 2014?

 

LinnieGayl

 

Crude and Clueless? If so, I’m sorry.

The column I wrote on Friday that, among other things, listed serious and silly suggestions for a series AAR is planning on heroines raised the ire of many. Readers felt the list was, just to mention a few flaws, misogynistic, guilty of gross stereotyping, and offensive. They asked if AAR has changed its “netiquette” policy (the answer is no) and if we planned to continue to use “hateful” and “shaming” language. Several have requested we apologize.

I am not speaking here for AAR–I write these words on my own. I would reiterate I am proud of our staff. These women spend the hours they do reading and writing because they love romance and want to share their love and insights with the world. They’re an impressive bunch and I am privileged, upon occasions (such as Friday’s column), to speak for the group.

That’s not what I’m doing here. This is just me.

If you were  appalled by what I wrote, I apologize. If you felt my language was an attack or an insult, I’m sorry. It’s clear to me I didn’t give the words I typed enough thought. Nor did I do a good job of explaining where the suggestions I wrote came from or how unlikely it is AAR would pick a title worthy of South Park.

Furthermore, though I opted, after a brief foray into the comment stream, not to remain part of the discussion there, I have read all of the comments (as well as those in the forums) and I am thinking about them. I’ve learned from what’s been said and I plan to, simply, do better next time.

Now there’s a real possibility I will fail at the above goal. Not because I don’t care about the issues raised. I do. But I care equally about freedom of speech and what that freedom means to me is often unpopular.

I’m betting AAR, however, will do a better job. My inbox is overflowing with thoughtful commentary from the staff, all of whom are thinking hard about how to say what we want to say in a way that is inclusive and aware. Their suggestions and insights are compassionate and nuanced. I promise you, those women rock.

We have yet to find the right name for our column. Captivating or Contemptible? has supporters but others feel that there are heroines such as Amy, the female protagonist of Gone Girl, who are both of those things. Today we’ve been considering Nonpareil or No Way? I think the title is still a work in progress.

Incomparable or icky? Best ever or big bummer? Splendid or scummy?

What do you suggest?

 

Dabney Grinnan

Sweetheart or Shrew? Sister or Skank? AAR announces a new yet to be named series!

'PRIDE AND PREJUDICE' FILM - 2005

Keeper or Kick-Her-to-the-Curb?

In July, AAR introduced the new series “Dreamboat or Douchebag” in which our staffers weigh in on the merits and demerits of famous literary heroes. These pieces have been some of our most popular and have generated a set of robust comment streams. They’ve also been a hell of a lot of fun to write.

Thus, we’ve decided to begin a similar series about heroines. Over the next year, we will set our critical sights on some of literature’s most contested heroines and pass judgement upon them. (We may even add in a movie heroine or two–wouldn’t it be fun to assess Vivian from Pretty Woman or evaluate Princess Leia?)

There are two things we are considering as we begin. The first is what makes a good heroine? There is, unsurprisingly, no consensus on that. Maggie likes a heroine who’s “well written and can make me sympathetic to her point of view.” Melanie prefers a woman who is “human – she has her flaws, but they aren’t the focus of the book” and who “feels real.” Shannon’s favorites are “self-reliant, but not afraid to ask for help when needed.” Caroline prizes “a sense of ethics,” “a spine,” and “self-awareness.” Lynn goes for “a smart, confident heroine who knows her limitations.” Lee wants a woman who stands up for herself. For me, a good heroine is one who deserves her happy ending–a criteria so vague it can be summed up as “I know it when I see it.

The second–and likely to be far more contentious–is what to call this column. There are those readers who acutely dislike “Dreamboat or Douchebag” and others who love it. We are sure no matter what we call our heroine column, the same situation will prevail.

I asked the staff to come up with suggestions for the column–serious and not–and their list was quite inventive. Suggested were:

First Class or Trailer Trash?
Sister or Skank?
Keeper or Kick-Her-to-the-Curb?
Bangable or Brown Bag?
Darling or Diva?
Wonderwoman or Witch?
Honey or Harridan?
Sweetheart or Shrew?
Captivating or Contemptible?
Special or Spoiled?
Treasure or Terror?
Catch or C**t?
Babe or Beyotch?
Hall of Fame or Walk of Shame?
and
Babe or Bint?

 

I’m not sure what we will pick or even if this is our final list. I give the staff points for wit.

We hope you will enjoy our new series and we welcome suggestions for heroines you’d like to see us consider. As always, we love to hear from you.

Dabney Grinnan

Jamie Fraser: Dreamboat or Douchebag?

Outlander has been in the Top 15 of AAR’s Top 100 Romances since we began doing them in 1998. It has a DIK review here.  In 1991 it won the RITA award for Best Romance Novel. I think it is pretty safe to say this novel is a beloved romance for many, many people.

Hero Jamie Fraser tends to be a fan favorite. He was No. 2 in our Top Ten Heroes Poll done in 2009. Claire and Jamie ranked third in our Top Ten Couples Poll. So could a guy this popular ever rate as a douchebag?

For some the answer is a resounding yes. And it all revolves around a handful of scenes.

The Background: We are all familiar with Stonehenge. What some don’t realize is that, while nowhere near as magnificent, there are other ancient circles of rock all over the British Isles. Thanks to a standing stone from one of those Claire Randall travels back in time from 1945 to 1743.Through a long series of events she winds up married to Jamie Fraser, a popular young warrior. The only problem is back/forward in 1945 Claire already has a husband. She wants to go home but being truly a stranger in a strange land has no idea how to even do that. She is forced to follow Jamie around. One day, this includes being left in a copse of trees with a warning.

If you leave that copse before I come for ye, I’ll tan your bare arse with my sword belt. Ye wouldna enjoy walking all the way to Bargrennan. Remember,” he said, pinching my cheeks gently, “I dinna make idle threats.” He didn’t either.

But Claire makes a discovery of her own while wandering around the area.

I had been so intent on arguing with Jamie that it had not until this minute dawned on me that the situation I had been vainly trying to bring about for two months had finally occurred. I was alone and I knew where I was. . . . no more than seven miles from that bloody hill and its accursed stone circle. Seven miles – perhaps – from home. From Frank.

She seizes the opportunity and heads for the stones. Unfortunately, on the way there she is captured by the English who have an amazingly bad relationship with the Scots. Jamie rescues her at considerable risk to himself and others. He is not happy. His men are not happy. And since he doesn’t make idle threats –

All right, now I will have to punish you, and for two reasons: first, so that you will know.” He smiled suddenly. “I can tell ye from my own experience that a good hiding makes ye consider things in a more serious light.” I took a tighter hold on the bedpost.

“The other reason,” he went on, “is because of the other men. Ye’ll have noticed how they were tonight?” I had; it had been so uncomfortable at dinner that I was glad to escape to the room.

“There’s such a thing as justice, Claire. You’ve done wrong to them all and you have to suffer for it.” He took a deep breath. “I’m your husband: it’s my duty to attend to it, and I mean to do it.”

Claire feels quite differently about the situation.

I had strong objections to this proposal on several levels. Whatever the justice of the situation – and I had to admit that at least some of it lay on his side – my sense of amour-propre was deeply offended at the thought of being beaten, by whomever and for whatever reason.

I felt deeply betrayed that the man I depended on as friend, protector, and lover intended to do such a thing to me. And my sense of self-preservation was quietly terrified at the thought of submitting myself to the mercies of someone who handled a fifteen-pound claymore as though it were a flywhisk.

“I will not allow you to beat me,” I said firmly.

In spite of some struggles from Claire, the event does take place.

It had been a most unpleasant night. My reluctant acquiescence had lasted precisely as far as the first searing crack of leather on flesh. This was followed by a short, violent struggle, which left Jamie with a bloody nose, three lovely gouges down one cheek, and a deeply bitten wrist. Not surprisingly, it left me half smothered in the greasy quilts with a knee in my back, being beaten within an inch of my life.

First, a side note. Claire eats breakfast, walks about the camp and rides a horse the following day. Yes, her bottom is sore but she can sit and ride. She was clearly not beaten to within an inch of her life, regardless of her feelings on the issue.

What damns Jamie in further in many minds is that he somehow managed to enjoy beating her.

“Enjoyed it! Sassenach,” he said, gasping, “you don’t know just how much I enjoyed it. You were so . . . God you looked lovely. I was so angry, and you fought me so fierce. I hated to hurt you, but I wanted to do it at the same time . . . Jesus,” he said, breaking off and wiping his nose, “yes. Yes I did enjoy it.”

“Though come to that,” he said, “you might give me some credit for exercising restraint.”

I was getting rather angry again. I could feel my cheeks flushing hotly against the cool dawn air.

“Restraint, was it? I was under the impression that what you were exercising was your good left arm. You almost crippled me, you arrogant Scottish bastard!”

“Did I want to cripple ye, Sassenach, you’d know it,” he answered dryly. “I meant afterward. I slept on the floor, if ye recall.”

I eyed him narrowly, breathing through my nose. “Oh, so that was restraint was it?”

“Well, I didna think it right to roger you in that state, however fierce I wanted to. And I did want to,” he added laughing again. “Terrible strain on my natural instincts.”

There is one more moment that seemingly condemns Jamie.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” I said, pulling back. “I can’t possibly; I’m too sore.”

James Fraser was not a man to take no for an answer.

“I’ll be verra gentle,” he wheedled dragging me inexorably under the quilt. And he was gentle, as only big men can be, cradling me like a quail’s egg, paying me court with a humble patience that I recognized as reparation – and a gentle insistence that I knew was a continuation of the lesson so brutally begun the night before. Gentle he would be, denied he would not.

These three moments are what serve as evidence to his nasty nature to some. Brynn Donovan in Persephone Magazine calls him a wife beater. Leah of Talking Reckless says, “This was a story about love, and there is something very twisted about slipping rape fantasies into a romance and passing it off as love.” Moxie on The Well-Trained Mind forums said:

Based on the reviews here and on several other boards, I began reading Outlander last week. I really liked it and thought Jamie was just perfect. Protective, gentle, just a perfect romance novel character. Then I hit chapter 22 “Reckonings”. I had to put the book down I was so disturbed and really shocked. I’m not sure I want to finish a book in which a man so happily beats his wife. I’m so surprised that in all of the glowing reviews I’ve read, I’ve never once seen any warning about violence.

I have to wonder what this says about women (I’m not attacking anyone here, just thinking about women in general). This is a really popular book and women everywhere *swoon* over Jamie. Do women secretly want to be dominated like that?

Kate Nagy gives a good defense of the issues on Heroes and Heartbreakers. But ultimately it comes down to individual readers as to whether or not the above actions place Jamie in douchebag territory.

For my part, while the fact that beating his wife caused a spike in his libido gave me a twinge, I ultimately still find Jamie to fall in dreamboat territory. A far worse punishment would have been not rescuing her. She might have a sore bum but he risked his life to save her from a situation where she was about to get far worse. In the 1700’s the idea of marital rape would not have existed so that doesn’t impact my opinion of him much either.

Now I will put the question to AAR Staffers – Jamie Frasier, dreamboat or douchebag?

Mary: Oh, definitely dreamboat for me. I just don’t understand how readers judge a 23 year old young man in his first committed relationship, doing what his culture has taught him to do and not look at the larger picture. First, when he had to rescue her, he put both his and the lives of his companions at grave risk. He had to confront the man who lashed him within an inch of his life (the witnessing of which caused his father to suffer a heart attack and die) who was also a sexual predator and in the process of attempting to rape his wife when he found her. That might just make any one of us a little angry. Dougal already does not trust her, nor do any of the other MacKenzies on that trip. So something had to be done to make things right. While I certainly do not believe that husbands should beat their wives, that was the culture back then and Jamie was just doing what his culture had taught him to do.

I also think that scene had less to do with Jamie’s character and more to do with Claire’s frame of mind. I do not think until that moment she truly understood the precarious situation she was in – that up until that point it was not totally real to her – almost like playing a game of make believe. This event brought it home to her in a very real and brutal way. It is a scene that forces her to choose and until later on in the book when she is accused of witchcraft, we no longer see Claire trying to get home. She resigns herself to life in the 18th century and a life with Jamie.

But…back to Jamie. What 23 year old guy has much sense? Especially one who has never been in a relationship before? If Jamie were perfect from the get go, he would have been a boring character. Over the course of their relationship, Jamie grows up and grows as a character. He does make a solemn vow never to strike Claire again and he keeps that vow. He LISTENS to her and takes her feelings and opinions seriously. By the time we are several books into their relationship, Jamie and Claire are on more egalitarian terms than Claire had been with Frank, in my opinion.

Caz: You took the words right out of my mouth. I really don’t think Claire had quite understood the severity of her situation and the fallout her actions could cause. There are many times early in the book when, while we can admire her for her ballsy stance and the way she stands up to the men around her in a way a woman of the time would probably not have done, but there’s a niggle at the back of my mind saying that she needs to be more circumspect. Jamie sums it up perfectly at one point when she starts to criticise something saying “where I come from – “ and he interrupts and points out “you’re here now”. Or words to that effect. She doesn’t have a great deal of respect for their ways and culture, possibly because at that point she’s still focused on getting back to the 20th century and Frank, so 18th century Scotland is still like a bad dream for her.

But her wandering off and then getting captured puts everyone in danger – especially Jamie who, until that point, has been lying low.

I’m not defending his actions but what else was he going to do? Sure, he could have sat her down and explained it thoroughly and perhaps Claire would have understood. But there’s also the fact that Jamie would have lost a lot of respect amongst the clan if he’d been seen to do nothing, and that if he hadn’t inflicted the punishment, then someone else would have, and would probably have done it publicly (much as would have happened to Leoghaire (sp?) had Jamie not stepped in).

As for the part where he admits to having enjoyed beating her… squick. But I don’t think it was the beating he enjoyed so much as it was the fact that she was riled up and fighting back.

As for the final example… I don’t see it as rape, marital or otherwise. He’s lusty and demanding, she’s knackered and a bit sore. It’s not the ideal combination, but there are times in a marriage when one partner will compromise to suit the other, and that happens in bed as well as out of it.

A lot of the time, Jamie is almost TOO good to be true. Even without comparing him to the men around him, he’s almost perfect – open minded, willing to learn, and from a woman, no less, honourable, kind and all those other things we love him for. To an extent, Jamie NEEDS to have some flaws, otherwise, he’d be bland and uninteresting. Would I have chosen those flaws to be that he straps his wife and has sex with her when she’s tired and uncomfortable? Perhaps not. But as far as I’m concerned, he’s still Dreamboat material.

Jenna: I thoroughly agree with Caz on all of this.

I read Outlander decades ago, when it first came out, and can’t remember much of it. I only just caught up with the miniseries, which inspired me to reread the book. I haven’t yet gotten to the scenes under discussion, but my initial thoughts about Jamie are that he’s almost too good to be true. He takes the beating for that young girl (name is completely beyond me!), he’s sweet and respectful and still a tough warrior, all with a good sense of humor. I think he falls firmly into the dreamboat camp.

As for the beating, again, haven’t read it in context yet, but given the times and the severity of what Claire did – the level of danger she exposed them to – I can understand Jamie’s reaction. She can be offended by what he did, and it certainly wouldn’t fly in today’s world, but I can see why it happened when put in the proper context of history and situation. I can’t hate him for doing it, the way I hated Clayton for spanking Whitney in Whitney, My Love. Even though that was also an historical, his beating of her was based on stupid misunderstandings and clearly an instance of power and domination.

Caroline: I think the spanking itself has been pretty well covered by the other ladies commenting here, so I’ll address mostly the arousal.

I think Caz is right that Jamie’s excitement comes more from having fought with Claire than from the act of beating her. I can’t really fault him for that. Erections in men can be a biological response to conflict and the hormones and adrenaline that come from an intense situation. Men get erections when their teams win tight football games, but that doesn’t mean they’re aroused by Peyton Manning.

Even if Jamie specifically had a spanking/beating fetish, I still wouldn’t let that alone put him in the “douchebag” camp. Why? Because what arouses people is typically outside their control (we wouldn’t call a BDSM hero a douchebag merely for getting turned on by spanking). It’s what a guy does with that arousal that matters to me. He recognizes that Claire doesn’t share his excitement, and so he doesn’t pursue sex. What’s wrong with that?

 

So it would seem that AAR Staff is firmly of the belief that Jamie is a dreamboat. Sure he has his problems but those are what keep him interesting. Now it’s your turn – In your opinion is Jamie a dreamboat or a douchebag?

 

Eagerly Awaited December Releases

It’s looking like a lighter reading month around AAR this December. The holidays may be busy, but there are still some promising looking books to read coming out, though. And of course, with the Annual Reader Poll just around the corner, there’s still time to catch up on all those 2014 releases we’ve all been meaning to read….

Title and Author Reviewer
Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover by Sarah MacLean Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover by Sarah MacLean Lynn, Dabney, Heather, Lee, Caz, Melanie, Alex
The Duke's Guide to Correct Behavior by Megan Frampton The Duke’s Guide to Correct Behavior by Megan Frampton Blythe, Dabney, Melanie
The Secret of Pembrooke Park by Julie Klassen The Secret of Pembrooke Park by Julie Klassen Maggie, Lee
Twice Tempted by Eileen Dreyer Twice Tempted by Eileen Dreyer Lee, Caz
Abravadaver by Laura Resnick Abracadaver by Laura Resnick Rike
Christmas Where They Belong by Marian Lennox Christmas Where They Belong by Marian Lennox Caroline
Broken Open by Lauren Dane Broken Open by Lauren Dane Heather
A Christmas Reunion by Susanna Fraser A Christmas Reunion by Susanna Fraser Rike
An Inconvenient Wife by Caroline Kimberly An Inconvenient Wife by Caroline Kimberly Lynn
Charming the Firefighter by Beth Andrews Charming the Firefighter by Beth Andrews Rike
The King by Tiffany Reisz The King by Tiffany Reisz Shannon
A Cowboy for Christmas by Lacy Williams A Cowboy for Christmas by Lacy Williams Lynn
The HIghland Dragon's Lady by Isabel Cooper The Highland Dragon’s Lady by Isabel Cooper Rike

A Dinner Party with Heroines

IMG_0861-001I rarely throw dinner parties. So much work for too little time. But that doesn’t stop me from imagining ones I’d love to attend–these always involve me staying far away from the kitchen–and whom I’d love to have there with me. I’ve imagined tables of my favorite authors, of fascinating historical figures, and, this week, a table of my favorite romance heroines.

Here’s the thing about the imaginary dinner party concept–you can’t just pick cool people. You have to pick interesting people who can share a meal, offer scintillating conversation, stay reasonably sober, and not get into raging arguments. For me, this rules out the terribly shy, the overly arrogant, and the cutting. (Sorry, Tam, you’re not invited.)

My dining room table seats eight if we squish, so I’ve picked seven heroines I’d love to have to dine–we’d order out, of course.

I’d put Marguerite de Fleurignac, better known as Maggie, from Joanna Bourne’s The Forbidden Rose at one end of the table. I love both the young and the old Maggie. I imagine her dispensing advice on raising independent kids, staying friends with old lovers, and exploring Paris. Plus, after dinner, I’d hope to talk her into showing us just how she gilded her toes.

Many of Lisa Kleypas’s heroines would be great guests, but if I had to pick just one it would be Lillian Bowman from It Happened One Autumn. Lillian is brash enough to make sure the conversation stays away from trite topics and smart enough to ask others their opinions. She’s an expert on scents, a topic I find fascinating, and has a head for business. I’d love to hear her views on America vs. Europe and ask her how she deals with her witch of a mother-in-law.

Hope Spencer from Rachel Gibson’s True Confessions would have fabulous stories to share from her days of writing for the tabloid The Weekly News of the Universe. Everything I’ve ever wondered about Bigfoot, alien abductions, and Elvis, Hope’s covered. She’s got great taste in clothes and would compliment everyone on their shoes–if appropriate. She also loves dessert, a must in my book.

Eloisa James’s Lady Eleanor Lindel of A Duke of Her Own is such an interesting open-minded woman–she’d enrich any conversation. She could discuss raising illegitimate (or not the norm) children in a conservative society and what it’s like to have a husband more fashionable than she. I’d ask about her sister Anne–I love Anne–and how they’ve stayed close despite living very different lives.

Violet Redmond’s (from Julie Anne Long’s I Kissed an Earl) stories about her siblings would keep the table entertained for hours. She could share tips on how to play chess, how to peel a potato–I have to cook occasionally so that would come in handy–, and how to insult a catty rival in perfect French. After dinner, I’d challenge her to a game of darts–surely her aim isn’t always that good!

Mina (from The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook) could tell us about symbiotic mechanical body parts work and who she thinks Jack the Ripper really was. I’d ask about the bugs from the Horde and what she thinks about the computer. She and Hope could spin stories of sea beasts–the kraken would best the Loch Ness Monster–and she and Maggie could share tales of foreign invaders.

And, though this group is heavy on historical heroines, my last pick would be Lulu Davies from Carrie Lofty’s His Very Own Girl. Not only did she live in England during World War II, she was a pilot in the British civilian air force. Her views on sexism in the workplace–she was paid the same as her male counterparts, something unheard of at the time–would be amazing to hear. I’d love to know how–maybe if–she managed to draw straight lines with eyeliner pencil on her legs and what her favorite contraband items were. She and Mina could discuss fighting while flying. And I’d ask her what life after wartime was like and how she feels about the way women were defined after the war.

OK, obviously seven is too few. I haven’t gotten to Penelope Featherington (Julia Quinn’s Romancing Mr. Bridgerton), Beth Cantrell (Victoria Dahl’s Real Men Will), Laney Lancaster (Carolyn Crane’s Off the Edge), or Jia (Jeannie Lin’s Capturing the Silken Thief). Clearly, I’ll need to host more than one dinner of heroines. Maybe a potluck next time?

Whom else should I invite?