Because…Romance Novel!

March 21st, 2014

james-macarthur_57154759Years ago, I used to do aerobics with an aspiring writer. One day she told me about the book for young readers that she was working on, which involved a villain who went back through time to take Joseph out of the Christmas story. “That’s interesting,” I said. “Why?” It turned out she had never thought about “why,” or what his motivation was, or what he was accomplishing by his actions, or what difference it made. But she told me she was glad I asked. No one had ever put it that way to her.

Sometimes snark can be our stock in trade as reviewers. We have genres we deplore, stock characters that we consider ridiculous, and tired tropes we hate (and at AAR, we privately used to make fun of the word trope, which we considered pretentious until we started using it all the time too). But the fact is, that when a good author uses any of these, we can buy into it, because that’s what good writing and characterization is all about.

Not everyone has that level of persuasiveness, of course. Sometimes, it makes complete sense in the author’s head but doesn’t stand up to even a small amount of scrutiny, like my friend’s Joseph-napping story. Sometimes the author just fails utterly to convince the reader of the character’s motivation. We understand what the author was trying to do, but it isn’t believable to us. Or, to paraphrase a long ago reader on our message boards, “we get it, but we don’t buy it.”

I think we see this both in contemporaries and historicals. In contemporaries the tough-sell premises include elaborate will stipulations (“You can’t inherit the family ranch unless you live here for one year with Bill, the handsome foreman, because romance novel!”) and marriages of convenience (Come on, it’s 2014). Thankfully I think we’re kind of moving away from sheikhs, whose allure utterly escaped me (“Come with me, my beauty, and live in my awesome country where women can’t drive! It’ll be great!”). In historicals the classic tends to be the heroine disguised as a man. I always like when the hero is completely fooled by this ruse and confused by his burgeoning same-sex attraction, then has sex with the heroine the minute he discovers the truth.

Sometimes it can be so over the top that it becomes fun and we just don’t care. Did anyone else watch Swiss Family Robinson as a child? My sister and I watched it obsessively for a while. Not only does it feature the aforementioned cross dressing, there is a long scene at the end where they throw logs at hordes of pirates, all of whom are easily felled even though they vastly outnumber the Swiss Family. The production values were bad even to the 80s eye, but it was fun anyway. And besides, I wanted to live in that tree house, preferably with Fritz (the picture above was my favorite scene). There are plenty of modern book equivalents to that. Do I really believe that the wealthy Roarke runs his empire just fine on no sleep and has plenty of time to assist Eve in every single investigation? Not really. Does it matter? Not really.

But I also think a really good author can simply sell us on the tough sell, even though long time readers can get a little jaded. There have been a few times in recent months when an author has made me buy into a premise I don’t usually like. I’ve seen people carry off romances with socially unequal heroes and heroines, Big Secrets, Big Misunderstandings, prostitutes, and thieves. None of these are favorites with me, but if you can sell me on the characters’ motivation, if you can make it make sense, then I’ll go along for the ride. My most recent example, Meredith Duran’s Fool Me Twice, had three of those things, and it still worked for me.

And when don’t those themes work? Pretty often. You have to have a reason you’re not sharing your Big Secret, a reason you became a prostitute, and probably a convincing villain for your Big Misunderstanding. We’re not going to buy it if you just use romance novel shorthand and depend on the hard work of better writers who have gone before.

So here’s my nickel’s worth of free reviewer advice: You can go one of two routes. The first is to go big or go home, a la Swiss Family. If you are going to have a beat a bunch of armed pirates, you should probably have them do it with a nine year old on an elephant, a log booby trap, and…wasn’t there a zebra? Or have your twenty-seven year old, Fifty Shades of Fucked Up anti-hero make more money than Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, because your whole story is already silly anyway.

Second route: Sell it. Have a reason your villain is taking Joseph out of the Christmas story, or your heroine is stealing documents, or your dashing, rich hero refuses to marry. A reason that makes sense and holds up to scrutiny. There are no shortcuts with this, and your reason can’t be “Because Romance Novel”.  Believe me, we’ll know.



TBR Challenge – New to Me Books

March 19th, 2014

fairshine I went back to “Sunday” in the Back to School Challenge this month, to read the second of the books I’d chosen for that day.

The prompt was

- Read a book that has in its title the word “Sunday”, “Sun”, “light”, “shine”, “hot, “star” or “day”, or any variation of these words, or a word you think might have a similar connotation.

and I’d chosen a book by the British author, Sylvia Thorpe called Fair Shine the Day, which is a piece of historical fiction with romantic elements set during the time of the English Civil War. This period of English history seems to get a lot less attention than Tudor times, the Regency, or Victorian eras when it comes to historical romance and I can’t quite work out why. There’s plenty of actual history to get one’s teeth into, and of course, that whole Royalist/Puritan divide is, I’d have thought, a romance writer’s dream. Read the rest of this entry »

Five Special Title Lists Open for Submission

March 17th, 2014

After a brief break we’re happy to announce that this morning five Special Title Lists are open for new submissions: (1) Spies, P.I.’s, & Warriors; (2) War; (3) Cons, Burglars, and Pickpockets; (4) Amnesia…or not; and (5) Rakes and Rogues. Read the rest of this entry »

Eagerly Awaited April Books

March 12th, 2014

Sarah Mayberry, Carla Kelly, and Kristan Higgins all have many fans among our staff and since they all have new releases coming out in April, we were looking over that April release list with anticipation. If you are one of the many fans of the Pennyroyal Green series, you will be delighted to know that the latest installment is due that month. And, as you can see, there are a variety of other books out there catchout our eyes as well. What do you want to read?

Title and Author Reviewer
Her Kind of Trouble by Sarah Mayberry Her Kind of Trouble by Sarah Mayberry Lynn, Dabney, Heather, Lee, Mary, Caroline, Rike, LinnieGayl, Pat
The Wedding Ring Quest by Carla Kelly The Wedding Ring Quest by Carla Kelly Blythe, Heather, Lee, Caroline, Pat, Lynn, Rike, Mary
Waiting on You by Kristan Higgins Waiting on You by Kristan Higgins LinnieGayl,Lea, Mary, Jenna, Alex, Heather, Maggie, Lee
Between the Devil and Ian Eversea by Julie Anne Long Between the Devil and Ian Eversea by Julie Anne Long Dabney, Mary, Heather, Lee
Silence for the Dead by Simone St. James Silence for the Dead by Simone St. James Maggie, Lynn, LinnieGayl
After the Scandal by Elizabeth Essex After the Scandal by Elizabeth Essex Caz, Dabney
Prince's Fire by Amy Raby Prince’s Fire by Amy Raby Caroline, Melanie
The Day He Kissed Her by Julianna Stone The Day He Kissed Her by Julianna Stone Dabney, Lynn
Unlacing Lady Thea by Louise Allen Unlacing Lady Thea by Louise Allen Rike, Caz
Three Weeks With Lady X by Eloisa James Three Weeks with Lady X by Eloisa James Alex, Dabney
A Courageous Ride by Andrew Grey A Courageous Ride by Andrew Grey Pat
Night Diver by Elizabeth Lowell Night Diver by Elizabeth Lowell Heather
For the Right Reasons by Kara Lennox For the Right Reasons by Kara Lennox Rike
Heaven's Queen by Rachel Bach Heaven’s Queen by Rachel Bach Jenna
London's Most Wanted Rake by Bronwyn Scott London’s Most Wanted Rake by Bronwyn Scott Caz
It's Complicated by L.A. Witt It’s Complicated by L.A. Witt Pat
Moonlight on My Mind by Jennifer McQuiston Moonlight on My Mind by Jennifer McQuiston Caroline
Fire Inside by Kristen Ashley Fire Inside(mass market reissue of digital release) by Kristen Ashley Mary
A Shocking Delight by Jo Beverley A Shocking Delight by Jo Beverley Rike
Her Soldier Protector by Soraya Lane Her Soldier Protector by Soraya Lane Caroline
The Winter Bride by Anne Gracie The Winter Bride by Anne Gracie Lee
Sharing Heart by Ken Murphy Sharing Heart by Ken Murphy Pat
Shards of Time by Lynn Flewelling Shards of Time by Lynn Flewelling Melanie

When Strong is a Stereotype

March 10th, 2014

THE OUTLAW  Poster for 1943 film with Jane Russell directed by Howard HughesI recently came across this wonderful piece by Sophia McDougall called “I hate Strong Female Characters.” McDougall is not referring to female characters with physical and emotional strength (for instance, she likes Buffy and Jane Eyre). Rather, she means the archetypal Strong Female Character, who establishes her “tough” cred through arbitrary rudeness, punching, slapping, kung fu, gunshots, etc. (McDougall calls it “behaviour that, in a male character, would rightly be seen as abusive (or outright murderous)”). Men are more powerful in Hollywood, on which McDougall focuses, but the female-centric world of romance has its share of SFCs, most famously in Lord of Scoundrels but also in some of my recent review books, such as Jo Beverley’s Seduction in Silk and Lilith Saintcrow’s The Red Plague Affair. But what about our heroes? Do we do the same token oversimplification of the other gender that male writers do? Are they strong, or are they Strong? Read the rest of this entry »

Between the Devil and Ian Eversea: A Pandora’s Box

March 7th, 2014

IAn Eversea cover shotDabney is an obsessive Pennyroyal Green reader. Caz is relatively new to the series. Today they chat about Ms. Long’s latest, Between the Devil and Ian Eversea. Read the rest of this entry »

Young Adult Special Title List

March 5th, 2014

YA writer Kate Hart assessed over the covers of 900+ Young Adult novels

As our Young Adult Special Titles List was only revised two months ago, we did not expect that many new nominations this time around – after all, with the last revision the number of titles on the list had almost doubled, and many of AAR’s staff had already entered their favorites then. We were pleasantly surprised to find that there are several fascinating titles – older ones as well as more recent ones – we had missed so far, and which we are now able to add, among them the creepy 1980s story A Deadly Game of Magic by Joan Lowery Nixon and Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series, which is a mixture of dystopia, SF and steampunk, but gets listed under Fairy Tale Retellings here (in case you were wondering). Read the rest of this entry »

Speaking of Audiobooks: Romance Audio News March 2014

March 3rd, 2014

The Luckiest Lady in London 200Today we’re talking about a few promising coming soon or new release titles, taking a look at the audio side of AAR’s recent Annual Poll, sharing the Audie Award Finalists in Romance (complete with an opinion), and providing you with a list of all audiobook reviews at AAR since we started publishing audio reviews separately from Speaking of Audiobooks. There’s a lot going on!

New and Coming Soon Titles 

Sherry Thomas

The Luckiest Lady in London, the winner of AAR’s Best Romance of 2013 Read the rest of this entry »

Roses are red, violets are blue. Like love poems? Here a few.

February 28th, 2014

love lineBefore romance novels there were love poems. Sometimes sweet, sometimes tender, sometimes raunchy but always intimate and direct. Most love poems are from the author to a specific lover, a genuine communication that wasn’t necessarily intended for commercial  consumption.  That authentic, sincere emotional communication can often capture the essence of love in far fewer lines than a romance novel. And it does so in such a way that it lingers on the mind and tongue in a way that a book often doesn’t. Read the rest of this entry »

We pick the “Buried Treasures” of 2013

February 26th, 2014

Starfish-beach-wallpaperIn 2013, self-publishing was mainstream, social media allowed authors more specific ways to publicize their work, and everyone had a strongly held opinion about what constituted a great romance novel.  This environment makes the idea of a “buried treasure” more difficult to define. So, let’s agree to accept this definition: a buried treasure is a book you loved you think isn’t as well known as it should be. Read the rest of this entry »