A Guest Pandora’s Box: The Girl Next Door

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 going to be talking about Amy Jo Cousins’ recently released New Adult romance, The Girl Next Door.

Book 3 of her Bend or Break series, it can be read as a standalone, although it centres on Cash Carmichael, everyone’s favourite dudebro from the first book, Off Campus. Despite coming from wealth and privilege, he’s working a minimum wage job, coaching soccer to inner-city kids. Then his newly out cousin turns up on his doorstep, looking for advice, and this puts him back in contact with Stephany Tyler – his one-time bisexual-with-benefits.

In full disclosure, we should probably also mention that we both think Amy Jo Cousins is the bees knees. In other words, we both know her rather well on the Interweb and received The Girl Next Door from her as an eARC.


AJH: Well, this one was certainly interesting. How did you find it, Elisabeth?

Elisabeth: I think it’s a very ambitious, risky book. And there were elements of it that really grabbed me and other elements that I didn’t love quite as much. How about you?

AJH: I think it went pretty much the same way for me. I mean, I love the way Amy Jo writes. I adore her characters and I’d enjoy pretty much whatever she did, simply because of her ideas and the way she approaches things (and people). But while I admire this book a lot and I think I can see what she was trying to do with it, it didn’t wholly come together for me the way, for example, Off Campus does. 

Elisabeth: I really enjoyed Off Campus as well and so I was eagerly awaiting Cash and Stephany’s book. The relationship between Reese and Tom in the first book was just so clearly articulated and slowly and satisfyingly developed. I think part of the reason The Girl Next Door didn’t work quite as well for me was that there’s a lot more going on here than just the relationship between Cash and Stephany.

AJH: Yes, I saw it as Cash’s book, way more than it was Stephany’s. I think what I found interesting was the way it’s … a male-centric romance in the same way that some romances are heavily focused on the heroine, with the hero being more an object or an outcome rather than a full participant in the narrative. So it was sort of like chicklit, in the sense of being primarily about this one character navigating their life, of which romantic fulfillment is just one part except it was about a guy. So … dicklit? Which, weirdly, might be why it feels lacklustre as a romance. 

Elisabeth: Okay, it took me a second to get over the laughing fit induced by “dicklit” but you make a good point. I tend to be equally frustrated with books that focus on the female protagonist to the exclusion of developing the romance so that was part of what I found difficult here. The other problem I have is that in Off Campus, I really, really loved Stephany and I…don’t have the same visceral love for Cash. So I felt a little cheated almost? Especially since the entire book is not only focused on his journey, but also told completely from his point of view, which is really odd for me in an m/f romance.

AJH: That’s really interesting, because most people are all Caaaaash oh Caaaaash! And, err, honestly I’m one of them. Or was.  I think it’s because amazing bisexual women are, y’know, fairly common in my life. Whereas straight men who are are completely comfortable with queerness are … honestly … still kinda rare. Which is not to say my dude friends all stand with their backs to the wall when I enter a room, but I am fucking painfully envious of the way Cash interacts with Reese. I basically want that for me. 

Elisabeth: That actually helps me understand why everyone is so in love with Cash. Because honestly, I didn’t really get it. He’s a jock. But so’s my brother. And he’s…well…a lot like Cash. I just didn’t see what the big deal was. Whereas Stephany just…she’s so brash! Romance heroines are not allowed to be that assertive usually and I love it. She’s kind of high maintenance and impenetrable with her commitment-phobia thing. It’s the reverse of what we see in a lot of romance.

AJH: I agree that Steph is not like a romance heroine is supposed to be, but she’s very like … many of the actual women I know? So, in that respect, she was familiar and I didn’t feel cheated by not getting more of her. But that might also be because we see her from a perspective that is familiar to me: from the outside. Not that I’m saying womenz are impenetrable aliens but while I definitely wanted more Steph in this book in general, I felt I had a very strong handle on who she was. And the slight sense of distance worked for me because it’s how I’m used to engaging with … err … women. God that sounds bad. But, as you say, it’s an unusual perspective to get in a romance novel.

Elisabeth: Yes, and I didn’t wholly dislike it. I was just a bit distracted by the novelty of it. One of the reasons I did appreciate that Cash-centric perspective is that it fits with the other books in the series. It’s mostly an m/m series, I think? And this is an m/f (and briefly m/m/f) departure in the middle. So the other books are all written from a male perspective. 

AJH: I also thought that was super-brave, actually. I love that the boundaries are starting to break down a bit between m/f and m/m. I think there’s always been a tradition in m/f of occasionally having your break out gays (Suz Brockmann, first and most famously, I think – but JR Ward and I can think of a few others) but I like the fact that Amy Jo has sort of flipped that dynamic. And there’s the fact Cash is the token straight guy among all these queers, which is refreshingly normalising. Instead of having the one gay guy in the Regency Bucks club or the one lesbian on the SWAT team or whatever. But I do wonder if some of the elements of The Girl Next Door that didn’t entirely work for me arose from the whole m/f in an m/m series context.

Elisabeth: Ooh like what?

AJH: I’m probably going to get tomatoes thrown at me for this … but the threesome?

Elisabeth: I had thoughts about the threesome too. It bothered me more the more I thought about it, actually. I really, really like Varun, Cash’s friend and coworker who joins Cash and Stephany for the threesome. In fact, I feel the same way about Varun as I did about Stephany in Off Campus–beloved secondary character for sure. So I was very pleased to see his character get developed a little bit in this book and I like that it further established Cash as a guy who would absolutely try anything for Stephany. But on the other, I felt it didn’t quite give enough in the way of character development for either Stephany or Cash to justify the page space since that was really something we already knew about Cash.

AJH: Basically, I agree. I liked Varun too but I felt he wasn’t developed enough to give that encounter any sort of charge. And, honestly, I don’t really know what Varun was supposed to get out of it. I mean, yes, they’re both hot and a threesome is a threesome, but his sexual interest in Cash seems to come out of nowhere. Or is bundled with this slightly unfortunate bisexuals-will-do-anything trope.

Elisabeth: This is where I go back to feeling like I might have liked to have a bit of Steph’s perspective. There’s a piece of the scene early on where Varun and Cash are talking about the potential threesome where I really wanted to know what Stephany said to Varun about how this was going to play out. Because I really had the idea that both Cash and Varun were sort of…in it for her. Like, maybe Varun wasn’t all that sexually interested in Cash, but just wanted to get it on with Stephany. I’m not sure whether that’s really valid or not, but that was how I read it?

AJH: Possibly. I mean, they do sort of spin the event as a goodbye treat for Varun so they must feeling they’re giving him something he wants and he responds like they are. But I just had no emotional context for it and I know sex doesn’t always need an emotional context but if someone came up to me and was all like “hey, dude, as a special favour, because I can tell you’re into me, I’m going to let you suck my straight boyfriend’s cock” … I’d honestly be slightly peeved. But Varun doesn’t have much of a role to play in the book as a whole so I was probably just over-identifying in the spaces, if that makes sense.

Elisabeth: Yes, it does. And for such a pivotal point, I thought it should have brought more of the story or the relationships together. Instead what we get is Varun leaving town for good, followed quickly by Steph and Cash having a bit of rough patch (though completely unrelated to the threesome, it’s worth noting I think–which could have gone a different way). 

AJH: Yes, even though it’s a lovely, sex-positive threesome and there’s no drama or angst at all, I just felt vaguely uncomfortable for Varun throughout. I kind of felt like his sole purpose here was to demonstrate Cash’s open-mindedness and/or Cash’s dedication to pleasing his girlfriend (in either case, basically to show to how awesome Cash is), which is kind of an awkward way to use a queer character relative to a straight one.

Elisabeth: Agreed. And while it seems to have been a positive experience for the characters involved, as a reader, I thought the whole thing seemed a bit superfluous.

AJH: Yes, exactly. I try not speculate too much about what motivates authors or spend too much dwelling on kind of the-book-that-isn’t-there (or the book of my own expectations) but I almost felt the threesome was there to increase the queer quotient, because there’s still not all that much overlap between m/f and m/m audiences. Honestly–and this might just be me being a pervert–but the I sort of realised on the bus the other morning (to the embarrassment of all concerned) that the scene I wanted there wasn’t a threesome. I wanted more Steph and Cash and … ideally I wanted a pegging scene. Like, it’s not something (in my admittedly limited experience) that’s written about a lot in romance and I’ve usually only seen it in a D/s context (with a male sub) – but given Cash’s enthusiasm for his ‘magic button’, his comfort in his masculinity and Steph’s adventurousness I sort of realised that they were one of the few romance-novel couples I could think of who could have that kind of sex without it being perceived as inherently about power and/or submission and/or emasculating in some way.

Elisabeth: That’s a really interesting observation. I didn’t think about it that way, but you’re right. The only time I’ve ever seen a pegging scene included in an m/f romance was in a D/s context. It’s almost like even within the realm of erotic romance, a menage is less “risky” than strap-on. Because it’s not the first time I’ve seen an author use a threesome where it easily could have been something else. And Cash does spend an awful lot of time thinking about his magic button and lecturing others about theirs, which wasn’t exploited much here.

AJH: Seems we are the founding members of the Royal Society for More Pegging in Romance.

Elisabeth: Do we get badges for that? I really hope we get badges for that.

But seriously, back to the threesome, I feel like we may be in danger of forgetting that this is New Adult romance. I would expect there to be some awkwardness surrounding how characters treat one another. So while I think Varun’s role in the threesome is awkwardly managed, it’s not entirely out of character for that to be the case. If this series is really aimed at an emerging adult audience, I suppose I’d rather see this scenario play out in a less-than-ideal way on the page than in someone’s real life.

AJH: Oh, that makes a lot of sense. Except I didn’t really get much recognition of potential awkwardness from the book itself. I mean, afterwards they’re like, “hey, Varun, we can use you again some time!” and he’s like “yay!” but, then, again, that could just come down the the fact is book is written in deep POV: it’s Cash, Cash, and only Cash, and he’s not always the most sensitive or aware narrator of his own life. So that makes it difficult to figure out, as a reader, the boundary between what the narrator is thinking/doing and what the our own responses/reactions should be, especially when you get to the deep stuff like race and sexuality and relationships between complicated people.

Elisabeth: And I do love how Amy Jo does complicated people. I think Reese, Tom, Stephany and even Varun have a better read on who Cash is at this point in his life than he does himself. Amy Jo manages to use that immaturity to show a really deep level of emotional intimacy between this group of close friends via how they interact when what they understand about each other that is still sort of mystery to each of them alone.

AJH: Yes, that’s wonderful. And I loved seeing Reese and Tom again. Much weepage. Amy Jo’s character work always delights me. 

Elisabeth: I really loved that The Girl Next Door was trying to do something different from nearly all of romance: the male POV in an m/f book, the m/f book in the middle of an m/m series, tackling challenging issues of sexuality and privilege head-on. It’s very refreshing to see a writer taking some really modern problems and situations and stretching boundaries. I haven’t read a ton of New Adult, but I like where this is going. And I can’t wait for Varun’s book.

AJH: Yes, all this. Very much all this. I have been so impressed with everything Amy Jo has done with this series. And while The Girl Next Door isn’t Off Campus for me, I still very much enjoyed it and very admired its scope and its originality and its courage. I think the next book is Danny and Rafi. But hopefully we’ll get Varun after that.

We hope you’ll join us in the comments below for more discussion of Amy Jo Cousins’ The Girl Next Door.

And if you want to read-along at home, next month we’ll be looking at: My Dark Prince by Julia Ross.

Thanks,

Elisabeth and Alexis

 

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The Best of 2015′s Romantic Suspense (Thus Far)

Each January the AAR Annual Reader Poll is a major event here, celebrating the best in romance published for the first time the previous year. And each year many readers do a lot of last minute reading in an attempt to find the “best” in various categories before the poll ends. We’re now at the halfway point in the 2015 publishing year, and thought it would be fun to do a series of posts earlier in the year, alerting readers to the “best” in various categories, and asking for suggestions for great reads we’ve missed out on. First up, is the Best Romantic Suspense published for the first time in 2015. As a reminder, last year’s winner was River Road by Jayne Ann Krentz.


So far this year, AAR reviewers have given a DIK to only one book classified strictly as romantic suspense title, Carolyn Crane’s Behind the Mask, while Laura Griffin’s Beyond Limits received a B+.  Two books first published in 2015 received a B- review here: Erica Spindler’s The First Wife and Jayne Anne Krentz’s Trust No One. The audiobook version of Nora Roberts’ 2015 The Liar also received a B+ here. And that’s it. So far, after six months, things are looking rather grim for our recommendations for the Best Romantic Suspense of 2015.

While I don’t read as much romantic suspense as I used to – preferring to either read straight mysteries or straight romance – I do like to keep up with the best in the category. I’ve personally read both Trust No One and The Liar and could vote for either one as my favorite romantic suspense of 2015.

I asked my colleagues at AAR for their favorite romantic suspense of 2015 and they came up with a number of great suggestions that did not appear in my search at AAR for romantic suspense (and some I’ve read and enjoyed). 

Lee Brewer has read a number of books she would label as romantic suspense, and recommends the following: 

Consumed by Fire by Anne Stuart (which continues her “Ice” series books)  

Fragmented by Stephanie Tyler.

The Other Side of Midnight by Simone St. James

A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley.

Lee also commented that she’s looking forward to the following releases later in the year, all of which she feels would fall under the broad category of romantic suspense:

Shadow Fall by Laura Griffin (release date 9/22)

A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn (release date  9/1)

The Lure of the Moonflower by Lauren Willig (release date 8/4)

Caz seconded Lee’s recommendation for The Other Side of Midnight, commenting that “it’s terrific.” (I should add that I listened to it in audiobook and found it outstanding).

Dabney reminded us that Debt, by Nina Jones, received a B+ in a midweek mini review. 

Maggie suggested another book featured in a midweek mini review, Minutes to Kill by Melinda Leigh. Maggie also read and enjoyed Circumstantial Evidence by Lisa Clark O’Neill, giving it 5 stars on her Goodreads account. Maggie is looking forward to the following yet-to-be-released romantic suspense:

The Secret Sister by Brenda Novak (release date 07/28)

One Last Time by Denise Daisy (release date 08/04)

Malice by Lisa Clark O’Neill (her website says Summer of 2015)

Maggie added readers also might consider Karen White’s The Sound of Glass, and describes it as a women’s fiction/mystery novel which deals with a mystery in the past. Maggie notes that she loved it and gave it a DIK.

So while AAR’s Annual Reader poll is about six months away, we already have a lot of great suggestions for Best Romantic Suspense published for the first time in 2015. But are we missing some great romantic suspense? What have been some of your favorite romantic suspense reads so far this year? And what romantic suspense novels are you eagerly awaiting in the remainder of the year?

LinnieGayl

 

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How To Lose Money and Annoy Romance Fans: A Story of Scribd.

iPad-Fantasy-v1

About a year ago, I tried the free trial offered by eBook subscription service Scribd. The number and variety of titles were astonishing, and there were books from both major publishers and indie publishers. Big publishers that refused to make books lendable on Amazon or to add their books to Amazon’s Prime Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited joined Scribd. The books waiting in my library ranged from Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong (still in hardback then) to new adult titles to lots of recent young adult titles to a textbook on homicide by Robert Ressler, and more. And the romances? Everything from major romance authors such as Julia Quinn to Julie Garwood to Jude Deveraux and Johanna Lindsey. Avon titles! Pride and Prejudice continuations! Carla Kelly books! I couldn’t wait to dive in.

Then I found out that I hated reading in the Scribd app, and I wasn’t crazy about reading on their website. Yup. With the advances in eBook readers, if I wanted to read all those great books, I’d have to read using an app. Not on my Kindle or Nook. Whoops. I hard a hard time fitting my tablet in my purse. It was like one of those terrible dreams where I’m in a great bookstore but can’t find my purse. So I canceled my Scribd subscription. Scribd probably loved me. While on the program, I read a couple of chapters from a young adult romance I’d been interested (only to get bored with it), and some of the Lance Armstrong book. Even with the free months, they still made money from me because I decided to keep my subscription going for a little longer.

I tried Kindle Unlimited and stayed there for a little longer simply because I could read the books on my Kindle. Sure, they had fewer books from big publishers, but I could read them on my Kindle. In the end, I eventually quit KU because I could never find time to read the novels I downloaded — the novels I bought came first. I ended up using KU to read shorter works, such as tiny books about reference topics that I didn’t want to pay $4.99 and up to read. Only to learn that anybody can pretend to be an expert, and one company was even “publishing” mental health pamphlets put out for free by the Australian government. Oh, well. At least those articles were accurate and well-researched. Also, KU isn’t without controversy because of the lower pay scale for authors. Authors have learned they make more money from shorter works, and less money from shorter ones, which is why many authors have turned to serializing longer books. Amazon is also quick to change payment terms. For example, Amazon recently announced that they would now pay authors by pages read rather than books read. This might mean that longer books will become more profitable than shorter works for KU authors.

With so many big name authors avoiding Kindle Unlimited, many romance fans prefer Scribd, however. After I left, Scribd added even more books, particularly romance. More Johanna Lindsey, and lots and lots of Harlequin titles. Scribd also added indie romance titles, particularly Smashwords titles — those can range from new romances and erotica, to previously published books put back in print by their authors. These fans joined because Scribd had no many authors. (You think they joined to read Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives? No, me neither.)

However, this week, fans noticed that some romance titles were disappearing. Some? Estimates say the 30,000 romance titles on Scribd could have dropped to 8,000! At first, fans thought only indie titles (such as titles from Smashwords and Draft2digital) were being removed. So while many fans were upset, others thought this would help make titles from large publishers easier to find. Then again, what about those Harlequin books some fans could no longer find? A temporary glitch? Or something else? I learned something was wrong with Scribd on Twitter before I learned anything from Scribd. Fans and writers alike were tweeting about the romance purge, and readers were already vowing to leave Scribd. Romance readers hate feeling unloved.

Blog posts came, too. On Tuesday, Mark Coker, founder of the Smashwords publishing service, announced that Scribd had yanked a huge number of SmashWords romance and erotica titles from the catalog. Coker estimated that as much as 80-90% of the Smashwords romance and erotica books were culled from Scribd’s library. He also realized that the most popular titles would be cut because they were costing Scribd more. According to Coker, “Bottom line, romance readers – readers we love dearly at Smashwords – are reading Scribd out of house and home. Scribd’s business model, as it’s set up now, simply can’t sustain the high readership of romance readers. They’re not facing the same problem with readers of other genres.” 

Author Bob Mayer also got a similar notice because some of his Draft2digital titles are on Scribd. Mayer sees it as a sign that subscription services might be in trouble. If a genre gets “too many borrows for the subscription price,” the service still has to pay those authors. So what is the solution? Removing titles? Paying authors less? These solutions will not make anyone happy. As Mayer, says, “Bottom line: romance readers are not particularly welcome at Scribd. You read too much. Aint that a hell of thing to say?” The Digital Reader blog put it succinctly as well: Scribd is Culling Romance Titles From Its Catalog Because You’re Reading Too Damn Much. On Thursday, the Digital Reader blog also confirmed that the purge wasn’t affecting just indie titles. As some readers feared, Harlequin titles were being pulled as well.

Maybe, like many other companies, Scribd underestimated romance readers. Maybe they told themselves “They won’t notice the missing titles…” Whoops again. Maybe Scribd thinks they joined to read true crime, or that they joined to read romance but will stay to read The Return of the Sorcerer: The Best of Clark Ashton Smith or The Color of Her Panties by Piers Anthony. Like me, some will read “all of the above.” But most romance fans won’t be happy with fewer romance titles. For a company often called “Netflix for Books,” it seems Scribd doesn’t know much about readers, particularly romance fans. Or maybe they didn’t pay attention when people told them “Romance fans are voracious readers.” Didn’t they research the romance field before marketing to them? Then again, maybe not. Some of the books Scribd categorizes as romance… simply aren’t. When you check out the Romance category on Scribd, one of the featured titles is a Sidney Sheldon book. Uhm, what? That book comes under the Cheaters category. Yeah, we all know how popular that category is with romance fans. When you view all romances, the first two books that come up are a Joanna Trollope novel and even a children’s book (The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman). Vying for space with authors such as Christine Feehan and Lisa Kleypas are “romance” authors Alexandre Dumas, Mercedes Lackey, the Marquis de Sade, Henning Mankell, and Virginia Woolf. Right. Whenever I want a pick-me-up, I pick up a Wallender mystery. Or Virginia Woolf. Not to mention Damage by Josephine Hart. So maybe the people running Scribd don’t know romance at all.

That’s no surprise to me. They might not know books, either, Last year, Scribd kept sending me DMCA takedown notices for public domain books I was hosting on their site. Is it so hard to figure out that a Charles Dickens novel is no longer copyrighted? Once, trying to clear up a possible “copyright violation,” they asked me if I was the author of The Kama Sutra by Vātsyāyana. I wish! I felt like replying, “Yes! I am over 1800 years old, and boy do you ever owe me some back royalties!”

If Scribd knows as much about romance as they do about public domain works, and the Kama Sutra, then both Scribd and romance fans and authors who depend on it are in trouble. Let’s hope they have learned better. The CEO of Scribd did respond to the concerns. They updated their blog on Tuesday to reassure romance fans that Scribd still loves romance and still has lots of romance books on the site. They are looking into other solutions, such as rotating the romance titles, and possibly even negotiating new terms with publishers. Of course, one solution might have involved, you know, telling the customers what was going to happen before pulling the titles. Maybe learning more about the romance community before adding that many titles. Doing the math first.

So what can Scribd do, besides learning that Virginia Woolf is not a romance writer, and figuring out that romance fans deserve a company that won’t take their money and then change the rules suddenly. Lots of ideas have been coming out. Change the amount publishers and authors are being paid. Offer more than one subscription plan, so that people who read a lot have to pay more. Keep romance titles (and other popular genres) in rotation, so that some titles are removed for a while. Not all of these ideas are popular, of course. Changing fees will drive off readers, and changing pay rates will drive off publishers and authors. Still, there must be something that can work.

I’m willing to offer some more ideas to Scribd and I won’t charge a monthly subscription fee. Learn what romance is, and what it isn’t, so that your search results don’t annoy potential customers.. Find out what categories fans like. (Cheaters? Really?) Visit sites like All About Romance, talk to romance readers, ask them what they think of your site. For Pete’s sake, remember that romance readers are your customers, not voracious creatures devouring books like a bookworm version of Sharknado.

Anne Marble

 

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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 | 7 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 | 13 Comments