Maya Rodale talks about Dangerous Books for Girls

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Tell me some about the knotty issues romance raises.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dabney: What has the response been?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

Thanks,

Elisabeth and Alexis

 

Posted in Book news | 16 Comments

“Not tonight, dear. I have a headache.” Or not.

I’ve been thinking about what turns women–OK, me–on. And by turns me on I mean interested in engaging in getting busy with my main squeeze.  I’ve been pondering this for two reasons.

The first is that earlier this week an advisory committee recommended that the FDA approve Sprout Pharmaceuticals’s drug flibanserin to treat low libido in women. (Disclosure: My husband knows the founders of this company.) Unlike Viagra, the go-to drug for male sexual dysfunction, flibanserin doesn’t treat a clear cut physical problem. As Cindy Pearson, the executive director of the National Women’s Health Network, writes this week in the Washington Post:

Viagra addresses a physical problem by easing blood flow in men who desire sex but have difficulty functioning. Flibanserin, on the other hand, addresses arousal in women who lack sexual desire by targeting neurotransmitters in the brain, our most complex organ.

Flibanserin has been rejected twice before by FDA advisory committees. Previously the agency’s studies showed the drug isn’t very effective (only 10-12% of women taking the drug showed improvement) and has too many negative side effects. Its passage this week is attributed by many to intense lobbying by those who believe the FDA’s earlier rejections are rooted in sexism and that women’s sexual dysfunction is such a pervasive and serious condition that any steps toward addressing the problem are inherently beneficial.

Not everyone shares this view. Others have decried the medicalization of desire. Women’s desire is complex and its causes are subjective and variable. If you Google “women’s sexual desire”–and I have–you’ll come away thinking no one is clear on how and why women are turned on. One article I read used the terms “spontaneous” and “responsive” to describe different types of desire. Women, in general, have more of the latter than they do of the former.

If I had to choose, I’d side with the latest FDA decision. I’d rather patients have an option than not. If you never want to have sex and that is making you crazy, I’d rather your doctor be able to recommend a treatment–with all the caveats a good practitioner will–and see if it helps you. We won’t know if flibanserin works until far more patients at different places in their hormonal life (the studies haven’t looked at the drug in menopausal women, for example) use it.

That said, I suspect flibanserin won’t work to boost desire in most women who struggle to find an interest in having sex. If I work backwards from the often quoted–by me–statement that women who read romance novels have sex more often than women who don’t, that says to me that desire often comes from something external to women.

This brings me to the second reason I’ve been thinking about desire in women. A friend recently asked if I had any suggestions for something romantic he could do for his wife for her upcoming birthday. This couple has two children, both under twelve. I’ve never met his wife (they live elsewhere), so I wrote back I didn’t know what she might find appealing. However, I love giving advice, so I shared with him two instances when my husband swept me off my feet and why I think they worked. (Some day I’ll write a column about the most annoying things my husband has ever done but today is not that day.)

The first was a time, easily fifteen years ago, where my husband surprised me at a lunch date. I thought I was going to lunch to celebrate my birthday with a good friend. Instead, my husband was there–he’d arranged it with her. This was a time in our lives where he worked sixty hour work weeks at a busy teaching hospital. We never had lunch. After I got over my shock at seeing him in the middle of a workday, we sat down to eat and–this was an era before carbs terrorized diners–the wait brought us a basket of bread. I grabbed the loaf–why was there a loaf?–and realized something was off. I put the bread down on my plate and realized it was cut in two like a sub roll. I then opened the bread and discovered a long narrow jewelry box. In it was a bracelet I’d longed for months earlier.

And while the bracelet is beautiful what I really love about what my husband did is that at a time when spare time was something he had hardly any of –did I mention we had four kids under ten at the time?–he did something for me that took time. His effort made me feel resoundingly valued and had we not been in a public place…. You get my point. This is the sort of act that makes me want to get behind closed doors.

The other example was the night when, for our anniversary, we got a sitter for the evening, and went out to dinner at the new ritzy hotel that had recently been built in our town. After dinner, we checked into the hotel… for two hours. This was a time in our life when our first two children were small and I didn’t have anyone in town with whom I felt comfortable staying with them overnight. My husband had taken into account my discomfort and arranged a stay in a hotel that worked around it. That was sexy.

My friend wrote back he thought his wife would love the second example. Maybe she will, maybe she won’t. But whatever she loves–and whatever makes her or any of us desirous of right here, right now sexual intimacy–will be endemic to her and her current context. And I’m pretty sure a pill won’t be that thing.

But if it is, that’s great. We all deserve great sex. We all deserve to want great sex. And in the meantime, thank the gods for chocolate, wine, good friends, and romance novels.

Posted in Dabney AAR, Relationships | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

When Bad Sequels Happen to Good Books

In my many years as a reader I’ve read some disappointing sequels. I never really felt the love for Rose in Bloom, the sequel to Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins. Something about the book never really captured me the way the initial story of Rose and her adventuresome cousins did. To be honest, I didn’t love Jo’s Boys either. In fairness, the books might have suffered from Fabulous First Book Syndrome, a condition where the original novel is so spectacular that no book can possibly follow it.

This might also explain my lack of adoration for Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. While I thoroughly enjoyed the first two books (to a near manic extent) something about the final novel never clicked. I loved the pairing – I was always Team Peeta – but the rest of the story didn’t quite satisfy. I admired some of what she did with the tale – especially the death of a key character that brought us full circle from book one – but I did not feel the love. The same is true of Cress and Fairestby Marissa Meyer. Cinder was brilliant, Scarlet good but these two? If the series wasn’t so close to a conclusion I would probably give it up.

The Inkworld series by Cornelia Funke was another that went from brilliant to pfft. The first novel, Inkheart, is a magical, lyrical tale about books coming to life and the magic and mayhem that that leads to. It’s an incredible story and not to be missed. The sequels Inkspell and Inkdeath had none of the charm so prevalent in the original book and the magic was lost.

These were disappointing but some books get a sequel so awful it never should have been written. Such is the case with Sliver of Truth by Lisa Unger. In the first novel, Beautiful Lies we learn that Ridley Jones has a lovely life. Or had a lovely life. When an act of heroism has Ridley’s picture splashed all over the news she learns the truth. That wonderful family and fairy tale upbringing? They are all part and parcel of a series of beautiful lies covering a horrific truth. I loved Beautiful Lies and eagerly grabbed up Sliver of Truth only to find that the author twists everything to create the sequel. It was a redundant, nonsensical tale that just about destroyed the joy I took in the first book.

I hadn’t expected to like Andrew Fukuda’s The Hunt, a violent YA thriller about murderous vampires but I did. I became thoroughly engrossed in this story of a group of humans in a world where they were food, considered the rarest and most delicious form of delicacy. Both The Hunt and its sequel The Prey set us up for a big payoff in book three. But that book, The Trap? The payoff never came and what we learned and how it ended made me want to smack it against a wall. (I had it on e-reader, there was no way my Kindle was paying the price for this travesty so it never got the beating it so richly deserved.)

In romance my most disappointing sequel was one I shared with many others fans. Dark of Night by Suzanne Brockmann, part of her Troubleshooters series, was the sequel to Into the Fire. In these two novels Brockmann broke up couples she had been setting up for several books in the series to give us whole new pairings. It was a nightmare for many, who had voted in polls and participated in discussions which strongly indicated that the original duos would be the ones we would see finalized in print. Some readers, myself included, took her off their buy lists. Others were so angry they sold all the novels they had originally loved as well. I can’t remember another book that caused such universal ire in the romance community.

So now it’s your turn. What book(s) was the most disappointing sequel for you?

 

AAR’s Maggie

Posted in Maggie AAR | 30 Comments

A Pandora’s Box: Mary Balogh’s Only a Promise

Today, Dabney and Maggie tackle the latest Survivor’s Club by Mary Balogh, Only a Promise. The book comes out on Tuesday, June 9th. We’ve tried to avoid overt spoilers.

Maggie summarizes the novel here:

As a schoolboy Ralph Stockwood, Earl of Berwick, was a natural born leader. When he convinced his friends to join him in glorious combat he had no idea that he would be the only one returning. Guilt ridden and heart sore Ralph has been able to move forward with life only by deadening himself to emotion. When he is ordered by his grandmother to find a wife and get an heir to secure the family title and fortune, he is reluctant to do so. On the outside he is a fine catch; A handsome man with a long established title, prominent position and great wealth. Yet he fears he has nothing to truly offer a wife, for he cannot give her love or real companionship or affection and what kind of woman would want marriage on those terms?

A desperate one. Chloe Muirhead had not one but two Seasons end in disaster and is (very reluctantly) resigned to spinsterhood. The last fiasco resulted in a wedge being driven between her and her beloved papa and she has taken refuge at Manville Court, home of the Duke of Worthingham. The duchess was a dear friend of her grandmamma and has invited Chloe to spend some time with them. When she overhears the duchess order her grandson to marry a crazy idea takes root in Chloe’s mind. What if Ralph were to marry her? He has no love to give, she has no expectation of any. A bargain is struck and the two wed. But when circumstances change and Ralph reneges on part of their deal, will Chloe be able to forgive him and make a real marriage out of their sham of a wedding?


 

Maggie: I’ve loved the Survivor’s Club novels. The ProposalThe Arrangement and Only Enchanting have all made my keeper shelf.  What have you thought of the series?

Dabney: This is not my favorite series by Ms. Balogh, though I am enjoying it. My favorite of this batch is Only Enchanting.

Perhaps the best thing about these books is their unflinching look at the trauma war leaves on the bodies and souls that fight it. Each survivor has struggled in different ways and all have been tragic, powerful, and intellectually engaging.

Maggie: Yes! Well said. I’ve found seeing the affects war has on the survivors one of the best aspects of the series. I’ve also enjoyed how each story involves overcoming a serious challenge – such as being blind or memory loss – to arrive at an HEA.

Only Enchanting was my favorite as well. I felt the romance in that story had more spark than this one did. Ralph and Chloe were sweet together but I never got a sense of chemistry. What did you think of their love story?

Dabney: Ah…. not much. I didn’t feel any urgency in their emotions or passions for one another. Additionally, I found Chloe and Ralph to verge just the teeniest bit in frustratingly self-indulgent rationalizations for their behaviors. I wanted Chloe to say, “OK, things have changed, I can step up to this plate,” and for Ralph to quit berating himself for asking Chloe to change especially given that neither of them had any choice in the circumstance that cause their circumstance to change.

Maggie: I suppose I sympathized with Chloe just a bit regarding the circumstantial change. She had her reasons for not wanting to go back to London and justified or not she had made her position clear. To me circumstances hadn’t really changed – the timeline had changed but not the circumstances. Ralph admits that neither of them had really thought out that portion of their agreement. If they had, they would have realized that it was impossible. So I empathized with Chloe’s position because she had been clear and he had been thoughtless.

And I don’t think either was that concerned with the actual decision but with the emotional turmoil they were putting the other through. Chloe had said some nasty things in the initial argument over London and felt guilt over the hurt she inflicted. Ralph seemed concerned with the trauma he was putting her through and the fact that he couldn’t control what would happen once they arrived in London. Perhaps the scandal surrounding Chloe really would make her something of an outcast. For me the resolution was good.

I have to admit, though, that I have a fondness for marriage of convenience tales and I thought that aspect of the story was handled fairly well. They had a quiet, practical type of love story which can seem flat but which I found sweet and heartwarming enough to enjoy. I can definitely see why it wouldn’t work for everyone though.

What did you think of the interaction with the other survivors and the characters from the Bedwyn Saga? Too much, too little or just right?

Dabney: I too like marriage of convenience stories but I so like Only Enchanting better that perhaps this one paled in comparison.

I am almost embarrassed to admit that I read the Bedwyn Saga long ago and haven’t read it again so I think I missed a lot of that.

One thing I thought was unique and well-handled in this book was the issue of Chloe’s father. No one was made to be a villain and Ms. Balogh wrote beautifully about heartbreak in the past and how it so shaped the present.

Maggie: We saw Lauren and Kit (A Summer to Remember) and Lily and Neville (One Night for Love) very briefly.  The first couple in this series is related to those two couples so I felt the encounter was natural and handled well.

Do you mean Chloe’s biological father?

Dabney: Yes. I loved how that story was told. At first you thought one thing, than another, and the resolution was charming.

Maggie: I’m so glad you mentioned that as it actually segues toward the topic that inspired us doing a Pandora’s Box on this book. In a comment made on the Politics and Romance blog MD stated that:

I was once discussing Mary Balogh with someone who is skilled in literary criticism, and she said, “She is so Christian!” I was surprised, because I would not have identified it as such. She broke it down for me – don’t remember it all, we were talking about her earlier regencies, and it was both the topics (sin, forgiveness, rebirth) and even things like character names (Adam = first man). Now, I have to say that the more recent Balogh’s novels have become more “preachy” in my opinion, and I now enjoy them less. But that’s just the feature of the writing quality.

I found myself reading Only a Promise at the same time as the blog was published and I think reading this comment made me hyper-aware of certain themes in the book I wouldn’t otherwise have noticed. For example, how very forgiving everyone is to the mother, sister and father. All of them had taken actions that greatly affected various people’s lives and there was no resentment or accusation of thoughtlessness or anything. It was like no one, especially the heroine, had a right to harbor so much as a negative feeling.

I’ll add that I don’t find that to be necessarily a feature of Christianity or even faith. This is far from the first book I’ve read that encourages unquestioning forgiveness on the part of the heroine nor is it the worst (that honor belongs to Lois Lane Tells All) and most of them don’t involve religion or faith

What are your thoughts on that? Is there, as MD mentioned, an element of Christianity or preachiness to the subject matter in Balogh novels? What about this one specifically?

Dabney: Well, as an utterly non-religious person, I wouldn’t define being forgiving as primarily a Christian value. (I’m sure she didn’t mean to imply any such thing.) I see the behaviors championed in the Survivors series as those we hope we are all capable of. To forgive–and they don’t always forget in these books–is a way for all of these men and women to free themselves from the pains of their past whether the horrors of war or the slights that come from the cruelties created by the rigid hierarchies of the Ton. To me, these books don’t read as “preachy” but rather as hopeful. Balogh tells stories in which humans overcome their limitations by being generous and able to let go of memories that limit their abilities to be happy. I’d go a step farther and say these books are less forcibly instructive than much I see in contemporary romance where attitudes often strike me as proscribed.

Maggie: I’ll admit that I found the scene at the time of the funeral with Graham, the heroine’s brother, a mite preachy. Especially the portion where he describes his faith and says: “For that is what my religion is,” he explained without any suggestion of pious pomposity, “and what it impels me to do with my life. Simply to love and accept without judgment.”

Was that scene noticeable to you at all or did it blend into the framework?

Dabney: The world is full of people who refer to their faith. I’m watching the NBA semi-finals now. The greatest three-point shooter in the history of the game, Stephen Curry, says he thanks Jesus after every one he makes. This seems unexceptional to me. Leaders say “God bless America” in the States almost reflexively. So, this scene didn’t strike me as forced or preachy but rather as true for that character. I’m sure I’m influenced by my own non-Christian values here as well. I’m a big fan of forgiveness so Graham’s statement to me seemed right.

It is interesting how things like this strike us as romance readers. There are many things in the genre, when I encounter them (the lack of discussion about abortion as an option in contemporary romance insta-pregnancies, character with silver or violet eyes, the consignment of anyone over 50 to the elderly pile), push my buttons. Those are things I notice because they are so patently fake to me. But the steadiness of faith in this book didn’t throw me. Graham’s statement read to me as ethical thinking.

Maggie: It is interesting how things strike us differently as readers. I noticed the forgiveness theme primarily because of MD’s comments being fresh in my mind. When I did a re-read recently I didn’t notice it nearly as much.  And as a Christian I have to say that with the exception of A Gift of Daisies I’ve never found Balogh to be an overtly Christian writer.

The scene with Graham stuck out to me primarily because the line about loving without judgment seemed to be a way to hammer home the forgiveness theme. I’ve had some, for lack of a better term “issues”, with how often heroines are asked to forgive in novels while it is often perfectly okay for heroes to seek vengeance. In this case the hero didn’t seek vengeance but he was the one that had to be forgiven – by the parents of the other boys and most especially by himself. On the other hand, Chloe was the victim of other people’s carelessness and/or cruelty and she was expected to forgive them. It’s not that I want a plethora of evil, hateful heroines who never forgive. But I would like to see some apologies, some acknowledgment that wrong was done to others and not just a demand that heroines be sweet, forgiving angels who always make the best of things.

What did you think of the novel overall? I definitely didn’t feel the love like I did with Only Enchanting but quibbles aside, I felt a very, very strong like. How about you?

Dabney: Oh… I love that point. Another thing that irks me in romance is men who never forgive slights against their women–and often punch or stab those who commit them. The angry male does little for me especially given the prevalence of the all-forgiving female.

I liked this book. I always enjoy reading Ms. Balogh–her prose is routinely arresting in the best ways–but the story here didn’t draw me in. I’d give it a B-.

Maggie: It was a B/B+ for me. I am already anxiously awaiting Only a Kiss, just three more months! and then finally after that we get the Duke’s story sometime in 2016.He the character that has interested me most in this series, right from the beginning.

 

Posted in Dabney AAR, Maggie AAR, Pandora's Box | Tagged | 13 Comments

Midweek Minis, the early June edition

It’s another edition of the midweek minis. This time we have three AAR reviewers, Caz, Maggie, and Dabney, sharing the short scoop on seven books and one series. Have you read any of these? We’d love to know your thoughts in the comments!


Caz’s takes:

All’s Fair in Love and Scandal is a novella in Caroline Linden’s current Scandalous series. It sits between books two and three, and features Douglas Bennet, the brother of Joan, who was the heroine of the first book, Love and Other Scandals.

In that story, Douglas was introduced as a bit of a jack-the-lad, a womaniser and gambler frequently to be found hell-raising with his best mate, Tristan Burke.  When Tristan unexpectedly marries Joan, Douglas finds himself at a bit of a loose end and returns to town to find it bereft of his usual cronies.

Mrs. Madeleine Wilde is a widow who regularly attends society events but who nonetheless maintains a distance from the other attendees. She never dances or engages in much conversation, and has a reputation for being somewhat cold and aloof.  Never one for attending balls and routs, Douglas has not encountered Madeleine before, but is immediately struck by her beauty and wants to bed her.  Knowing of Douglas’ penchant for a wager, one of his cronies, William Spence, bets Douglas that he won’t be able to secure a dance with her – and he immediately takes the bet, sure his good-looks and charm will win him more than a dance that night.

But Madeleine is no simpering miss to be won over by a handsome form and winsome charm.  She knows exactly who Douglas Bennet is and what he wants, and rebuffs him in no uncertain terms. Smarting at her rejection, Douglas is prepared to listen to another of his friend’s proposals – not a wager this time, but an offer.  A disgruntled member of the ton has offered a reward to the person who can find evidence of the identity of the infamous Lady Constance, author of the series of erotic pamphlets, 50 Ways to Sin.  Spence suspects Madeleine and offers to share the bounty with Douglas if he can provide the necessary evidence.

The stage is set for a rather reluctant courtship, but Douglas is so delightful, and so clearly careful not to do anything which makes her uncomfortable, that Madeleine finds it hard to maintain her resistance.  The development of the relationship between the couple is truly charming, and their interactions are full of warmth and genuine humour.

Novellas are notoriously difficult to do well, as it takes a very skilled author to invest something of around one hundred pages with the same quality of character and plot development as would normally be found in a full length novel.  Fortunately, Ms Linden IS one such author, and I found this to be as well put-together as the full-length books in the series.  AAR grade: B+. Sensuality: Warm.

 

thedarkaffairThe Dark Affair is the third book in Ms. Claremont’s Mad Passions series, and features James Stanhope, Viscount Powers, who was an intriguing secondary character in the previous book in the series, Lady in Red.  In fact, I found him so intriguing, that I was far more interested in him than in the hero, so I’m glad that he got his own book!

Powers has been struggling for years with the pain caused by the deaths of his late wife and two-year-old daughter, and started using opium as a way of forgetting.  He has become an addict, and at the beginning of the book, has been committed to an asylum by his father, who is desperate to stop his son from killing himself – which will undoubtedly happen if he continues on his present course.  The Earl of Carlyle has employed a highly regarded nurse, Lady Margaret Cassidy, who has made a name for herself as the result of her work treating the physical and mental injuries sustained by soldiers in the Crimea.

At their initial meeting, Powers wants nothing to do with Margaret, and makes that clear in no uncertain terms.  But she is persistent – he needs help and she can give it, but it’s not going to be easy for either of them.  When the earl asks her to marry James and give him an heir in return for a large financial settlement, she is horrified.  But the money he offers will enable her to do a lot of good – she’ll be able to get her younger brother out of a serious fix and send money home to Ireland, where people are still facing the ravages wrought by the potato famine.  So she agrees.

Powers’ recovery is difficult and sometimes debilitating, and the author portrays this very well. (One of the weaknesses in the last book was that the heroine, also an addict, seemed to be able to kick her habit with no problem).  Margaret is battling demons of her own, and has just as much of an issue with trust and as strong an aversion to letting someone get close to her as James does, so in that way, their journeys mirror each other.  Because the book centres so much on Powers’ recovery, the romance is perhaps a little underdeveloped and I did wonder at times if he was ready to fall for someone else given the depth of the grief and guilt he was trying so hard to ignore.  But their relationship is otherwise well done, and I enjoyed their interactions and the way in which Margaret refuses to allow James to wallow by making him face up to the fact that he doesn’t have a monopoly on suffering.

I also liked the way Ms. Claremont develops the relationship between father and son. At the outset it seems as though the earl is concerned only the future of his title and family line, but we’re gradually shown that isn’t the case and that he cares deeply for his son. There’s a sub-plot involving Margaret’s younger brother and his involvement with Irish revolutionaries which is rather under-developed, and while the writing is generally good, there are a few instances of an odd turn of phrase or word choice that are rather jarring.  Overall, though, I did enjoy the book, and will certainly be looking out for more from this author. AAR grade: B. Sensuality: Warm.


Maggie’s takes:

Beautiful Criminal by Shady Grace is a short erotica story about a young man who crash lands his plane in the Canadian Rockies. I found myself wishing it had been longer as I would have enjoyed spending more time with these characters.

Mima Etu lives a quiet life in the rugged Rockies. She hunts for her food, uses sled dogs as her main mode of transportation and has only one close friend in her neighbor Mary.  While out with the dogs one day she comes across a plane crash. Surprisingly, the pilot is still alive. Mima takes him home and provides the best bush medicine she can. There is no question of taking him to the nearest village for treatment; a storm has blown in and the trip would be far too dangerous. But spending days and nights in the cabin with the sexy Gabriel Miller presents its own kind of danger.

Gabe does not want to get the lovely Mima involved in his dangerous life style but he can’t help falling for the efficient, self-reliant sexy young woman. When the two act on their attraction the explosion of heat and emotion rock him to his core. There is more than just chemistry between them. He wishes he could stay with her and find out where this will lead but he is on a deadline and trouble will arrive if he doesn’t make it. With the clock ticking on his life and his love will Gabe be able to tell Mima the secret to just why he has to leave? And if he does, will she be able to accept him for who he is or will she turn away in disgust?

A fabulous setting and an interesting hero and heroine make this story an incredibly fast read. It was pretty easy to guess the big secret but the pacing and action kept that from being a factor that dragged down the tale. I wish the story had been a book – it would have been nice to see the whole thing fleshed out more. AAR Grade: B. Sensuality: Hot.

 

A schoolmarm turned kidnapper is the star of Karen Witemeyer’s new novel A Worthy Pursuit. Charlotte Atherton is working as headmistress of Sullivan’s Academy for Exceptional Youths when her boss advises her the school will be shutting down. Wise to just why this will be, Charlotte takes three of the most vulnerable students with her when she leaves in the dead of night. Along with an elderly caretaker the small group heads to a remote cabin in Texas.

Stone Hammond is the best retriever in the business. When a worried grandfather contacts him to rescue his granddaughter from a thieving teacher Stone knows he is the perfect man for the job. He would never leave innocent children in the hands of the depraved. He tracks Charlotte to the cabin, ready to take the children to their homes and place her in the hands of the law.

When he finally meets Miss Atherton and she produces documentation that shows her to be legally responsible for the kids, that puts a new spin on the situation. Then a conversation with the granddaughter of the man who hired him proves he is on the wrong side of this fight. Can he convince Charlotte to trust him to do the right thing and protect her and the children? More importantly, can he win the heart of the woman he has come to love and admire?

This frothy, humorous Inspirational romance made a perfect reading start to my summer. It has that just right mix of serious and sweet to be the ideal way to while away a sunny afternoon. I found the romance believable, the hero and heroine delightful and worthy and the children charming without being cloying. Issues of faith are definitely a part of the tale but they are woven naturally into the story line and our romance and adventure stay front and center. I’m happy to recommend this. AAR Grade: B+. Sensuality: Kisses.

 

Madeleine’s War is a very misleading title. This novel by Peter Watson about WWII espionage by the clandestine spy group SC2 should actually be titled Matt Hammond’s War. Matt is one of the high up muckety-mucks of the organization. He was wounded while in the field in France and now has only one lung. He still smokes and from what I could see it didn’t slow him down unless the author needed it too. Matt’s teaching new agents how to go about their jobs and it is in the course of this that he meets the lovely Madeleine. She’s the best in her class – the most beautiful, the most clever, the most talented. Yada yada yada – the gal is gifted. They fall in love and move in together for the brief time they have and then Madeleine is sent to France just before the invasion takes place. When she goes missing Matt has to wonder if she has gone to ground, been captured or if something much more sinister has happened. Was Madeleine so good at the training because she had been through it once before – for the other side?

I had several struggles with this novel. The first is that the rich historical detail is almost too much. I felt that with sufficient study of the text I myself could become a WWII spy. It’s fabulous to be supplied with enough facts to get a feel for h/h job but a line can be crossed and it was here. I also couldn’t reconcile to the lack of intimate knowledge I had about the titular Madeleine.  She was a shadow character, a driving interest for Matt but we weren’t given enough information about her to really get a feel for who she was. I think this was done for the sake of the big mystery of the novel – is she or isn’t she a double agent – but I felt the book didn’t really succeed in making me question her loyalty. I didn’t doubt Madeleine’s character; Matt is too much of a Gary Stu to have made such a big mistake about her. I just didn’t know her well enough to understand anything besides her loyalty to the cause. The story isn’t awful; it just didn’t work for this reader.  AAR Grade: C-. Sensuality: Subtle.


Dabney’s takes:

Harlan Coben’s latest, The Stranger, is so like the author’s earlier books that, as I read, I kept confusing plots. The hero, a lawyer named Adam who has his safe suburban world upended by the eponymous stranger, is interchangeable with the heroes of Hold Tight (a much better book) and Caught, just to pick two. Adam is a good man, a modern hero who loves his children, his wife, and sticks up for the little guy. His musings on the capriciousness and cruelty of life are smart and winning.

Adam is watching his eldest son play a stellar game of lacrosse when a man he’s never met comes up and tells him Adam’s wife Corrine, whom Adam loves in the way that admirable husbands love their wives, faked her last pregnancy–it ended in a miscarriage, or so Corrine said. Adam senses the man’s revelation is the truth and so he confronts Corrine about it later that night. The next day, Corrine vanishes–she sends Adam a text saying she just needs some time away. Adam begins to try and solve the mystery of why Corrine lied and, as he does, he slowly uncovers… well, I’ll let you read the book for yourself.

If you’re looking for a mindless mystery–this book should have come with the subtitle Beach ReadThe Stranger fits the bill.  I read the whole thing in under 48 hours and am not here to complain I wasted my time. That said, when I’d finished, I fretted.

Coben can usually be counted on as a man who doesn’t write sexist thrillers. His leads are routinely women. In most of his books, those who make the biggest errors are arrogant white males. But this book felt a bit like the Disney version of a Coben novel. Only women die, and those who aren’t victims–with one exception–are cardboard characters useful only as a tool for the men around them.

The plot doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and the ending is so rushed I had a hard time believing I’d reached the story’s end. It is not, by any stretch, my favorite by Mr. Coben. Still, even a mediocre book by Mr. Coben is better than most mainstream thrillers. His insights about white suburban life are keen and few write more convincingly about the relentless love parents have for their children. AAR grade: C+. Sensuality: NA.

 

So it turns out there’s a whole category of romance I wasn’t aware had a name: Dark Romance. Described as not for the faint of heart, with graphic and occasionally horrifying encounters, and often having captivity or violent themes, these books have heroes who do things like rape, kidnap, and enslave the heroines. One of my favorite authors, Carolyn Crane, writes dark romances under the name Annika Martin, so I decided to give the sub-genre a try. (Remember–I am the reader whose introduction to romance was Sweet, Savage Love.)  I read Ms. Martin’s Taken Hostage by Kinky Bank Robbers series (I am not making the title up.) and didn’t think it was especially dark at all. The heroine, an everyday girl dying to escape her humdrum life, is thrilled to be kidnapped by a hunky trio of thieves and their group sex is not only consensual, she’s never been treated so well in her life.

The Taken Hostage books weren’t very interesting–all sex and very little plot beyond crime and coming–but they didn’t seem very dark to me. I’d give the lot a C and call it erotica.

Then, I read Nina Jones’s Debt.  It is a dark book. I can’t imagine ever wanting to read it again and yet, I found myself pulled into the utterly fucked up relationship it portrays.

Mia is a good girl whose life is so uninteresting to her that she, in a rash act, hires someone to rape her. There’s a site a woman can go to where she enters her rape fantasy and later, at some time and place she can’t predict, a man will attack and take her. There are protections, of course. There’s a safe word, and the promise of condoms and disease-free assailants. Mia can barely believe she signed up for such a thing and yet she longs for it all the same.

Tax, the man who attacks Mia, is not what she signed up for. Completely coincidentally, he’s determined to destroy Mia–and I do mean destroy her–as revenge for a horror Tax and his family endured fourteen years earlier for which he blames Mia. Tax attacks Mia, they have sex–is it rape? I don’t really think so but it’s iffy–and, afterwards, neither of them can forget the other.

Tax is a bad guy–there is no getting around this. He’s a killer and an asshole and, for the first half of the book, watching Mia put herself in his hands is horrifying. But, as dark as this is, it is a romance and so, like all bad boy heroes, there is more to Tax than it seems. He initially writes himself a pass for all his criminal behavior but, as he falls for Mia, he begins to questions his actions.

Mia falls for Tax–or at least the kind of sex he offers–almost immediately. This is the thing about a rape fantasy–it is someone’s fantasy. Tax is Mia’s and, as such, he is just what she wants.

Their love story is well-told. Both Tax and Mia are complicated souls and Ms. Jones makes them compelling. Mia’s rape fantasy doesn’t mean she’s weak and, for most of the book, she is clearly the stronger character. I was drawn into the book from the opening pages and I was satisfied by the story when I finished it.

Since reading Debt, I’ve tried to read several other dark romances on the Goodreads top Dark Romances list. I disliked them intensely and, in all but one other case, found them unfinishable. But Debt I liked, or rather, enjoyed. If you want to tread on the dark side, I recommend it. AAR grade: B+. Sensuality: Hot.

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

Eagerly Awaited June Books

Summer’s here? We’re definitely planning to keep reading all through June ! Many of us here at AAR are happy to see a new release from the ever-popular Julie James. If you prefer historicals, I know some of us are excited about new books from Mary Balogh, Elizabeth Hoyt, and several others. Personally, I’m itching to get my hands on the newest book from Anne Stuart. There are plenty of authors who write about bad and dangerous men, but she’s in a class by herself. So, what are you looking forward to reading?

Title and Author Reviewer
Suddenly One Summer by Julie James Suddenly One Summer by Julie James Lea, Caroline, LinnieGayl, Mary, Maggie, Alex, Cindy
Dearest Rogue by Elizabeth Hoyt Dearest Rogue by Elizabeth Hoyt Heather, Lee, Alex, Mary, Caz
Only a Promise by Mary Balogh Only a Promise by Mary Balogh Lee, Maggie, Caz, Mary, Alex
Shards of Hope by Nalini Singh Shards of Hope by Nalini Singh Cindy, Alex, Maggie
Consumed by Fire by Anne Stuart Consumed by Fire by Anne Stuart Lynn, Cindy
The Spring Bride by Anne Gracie The Spring Bride by Anne Gracie Mary, Caz, Lee
Sweet by Emmy Laybourne Sweet by Emmy Laybourne Anne
Love in the Time of Scandal by Caroline Linden Love in the Time of Scandal by Caroline Linden Caz, Mary
Nova by Margaret Fortune Nova by Margaret Fortune Melanie
Wildfire in His Arms by Johanna Lindsey Wildfire in His Arms by Johanna Lindsey Haley
A Worthy Pursuit by Karen Witemeyer A Worthy Pursuit by Karen Witemeyer Maggie
Whispers at Court by Blythe Gifford Whispers at Court by Blythe Gifford Lynn
The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes Anne
The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen Melanie
Her Convenient Cowboy by Lacy Williams Her Convenient Cowboy by Lacy Williams Lynn
Beach Town by Mary Kay Andrews Beach Town by Mary Kay Andrews Lee
The Shadow Revolution by Clay and Susan Griffith The Shadow Revolution by Clay Griffith and Susan Griffith Melanie
Follow Me Back by A. Meredith Walters Follow Me Back by A. Meredith Walters Anne
The Virgin's Daughter by The Virgin’s Daughter by Laura Andersen Caz
Posted in Lynn AAR, Reading | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

The Last Hellion is out on audio! Here’s our DIK review.

The Last Hellion is the last of the four books in Ms Chase’s Scoundrels series, which are linked via a number of recurring characters; and it can perhaps be seen as a sequel to the wonderful Lord of Scoundrels. We met Vere Mallory, Duke of Ainswood, in that story when, drunk as a lord (!), he mistook the newly-married Lady Dain for a light skirt and was immediately pummeled into the dirt by Lord Beelzebub himself, and forced to apologise.

Ainswood is the appropriately titled “Last Hellion” of the title, and comes from a long line of ne’er-do-wells. He never expected or particularly wanted to be a duke, but a series of tragic accidents and illnesses sees him attending a seemingly never ending succession of funerals, the last of them for his beloved nine-year-old nephew and ward, Robin.

Anyone familiar with Lord of Scoundrels will recall how skilfully Loretta Chase recounted Dain’s backstory in the book’s prologue, introducing us to an unloved child who believed himself unlovable. Here, the author yet again introduces her hero in an incredibly poignant manner, and all I will say about the prologue to The Last Hellion is this – have a box of tissues handy. You’ll need them.

In the months following his accession to the title, Vere has thrown himself into an unending round of debauchery, cut himself off from his remaining family and eschewed his responsibilities, both to his title and to his remaining wards, Robin’s two sisters. He presents himself to the world as a dissolute, cynical rake who cares for nothing and nobody, but behind that façade is a grieving, angry man who despises himself, his position and his life, a man who wants so badly never to be hurt again that he pushes away everyone he cares for and walls off his emotions.

Lydia Grenville is a crusading journalist who is currently working to expose the underhand practices of one of London’s most notorious madams. She is on the verge of catching the bawd abducting a young woman but is prevented at the last minute by Ainswood, who mistakenly believes that Lydia, the madam, and her quarry are merely ladies of the night engaged in a quarrel. Furious at the interference of the ill-dressed, ill-mannered but gorgeous lout she recognises as “one of the most depraved, reckless and thickheaded rakes listed in Debrett’s Peerage, the encounter ends with Lydia knocking Ainswood on his arse and stalking off – but not before the sparks have well and truly begun to fly and both have recognised something of a kindred spirit in the other.

Like Vere, Lydia has suffered the pain caused by the deaths of loved ones, in her case, her mother, who died when she was ten, and her younger sister who died from consumption contracted during the year the girls spent locked up in debtor’s prison with their neglectful, drunken father.

The relationship between Ainswood and Lydia is jam-packed with wit, humor, and enough sexual chemistry to blow a hole into the middle of next week. Neither of them wants to desire the other at all, let alone with such intensity, and they fight their fascination with each other every step of the way. The way Ms Chase conveys their extremely reluctant mutual attraction is nothing short of masterful – the listener is never simply “told” anything; instead, we’re shown time and again through dialogue and action that these are two people who are meant to be together and who really need each other in order to become the person they’re meant to be.

There are several sub-plots running through the book. Following the encounter which Ainswood disrupted, Lydia rescues the girl the madam had been trying to abduct, who turns out to be a runaway from Cornwall, Tamsin Price – a sensible, well-bred young woman who becomes Lydia’s friend and confidante. Bertie Trent, still the lovable buffoon from Lord of Scoundrels gets to show another side of himself and comes into his own, Lydia discovers the truth about her past, and there’s a dramatic kidnap plot as well as the various scrapes Lydia gets into as the result of her journalistic investigations.

Both Ainswood and Lydia are extremely well-drawn, complex characters, who hide the truth of themselves from the world. Vere is, deep down, a decent, compassionate man who has been so severely affected by the losses he has suffered that he can’t bear to open himself up to more. Lydia is a woman trying to make her way in a man’s world – she’s frequently subjected to ridicule because of her height (she’s taller than most men), her quick temper, sharp wit, and willingness to stand up and be counted; yet beneath it all, she’s soft-hearted and a bit of a romantic at heart.

The Last Hellion is a terrific listen. The quick-fire dialogue between the principals is to die for, the romance is brilliantly written, and I loved the glimpses of the friendship between Ainswood and Dain that we got to see. I did find that the pacing slowed a bit in the middle, and that the ending meandered a bit; the truth of Lydia’s parentage is revealed alongside the aforementioned kidnap plot, and although both are relevant in that they help the protagonists in making peace with their pasts, I was so invested in Lydia and Vere’s relationship that I wanted to spend the time with them rather than focused on something else. But that really is my only complaint, because otherwise the book is every bit as good as its predecessor.

Kate Reading’s name attached to an audiobook is like having it stamped with a seal of quality. She’s someone I’ve enjoyed listening to for some time – her recordings of Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series are terrific, and I really enjoyed her performance in Madeline Hunter’s Dangerous in Diamonds, which was the first book I’d heard her narrate – but I remember bemoaning at the time that she hadn’t recorded a great number of historical romances. A little bird must have heard me, because since making that stupendous recording of Lord of Scoundrels last year, she’s gone on to narrate more books by Ms Chase as well as a number of other historicals, including His at Night by Sherry Thomas, which has quickly become one of my favourite audiobooks.

Her performance in The Last Hellion is every bit as good as it is in the other books in this series – and may, in fact, be even better, which is really saying something. Her characterisations of all the principals and main secondary characters are excellent and very well defined; Ainswood and Dain are easy to tell apart as are Lydia and Jessica, and Bertie Trent sounds just as sweetly bluff and slightly bewildered as he ever did. Tamsin’s Cornish accent sounds authentic but isn’t so thick as to make it unintelligible, and the various servants and city dwellers are given accents appropriate to their ages and situations.

Both narrative and dialogue are perfectly paced and delivered. Ms Reading gets to the heart of the characters and the story in what is an incredibly nuanced and emotionally resonant performance. In a recent interview, she said that she is going to be recording a number of Ms Chase’s other books, and if they’re all as good as this one, we’ve got a lot to look forward to.

Narrated by Kate Reading

Narration: A+ and Book Content: A-

Unabridged length 12 hours 59 minutes

Available at Audible for 1 credit or $17.46 for members; $24.95 for non-members. It can also be purchased from Audible via Amazon.

 

–Caz Owens

Posted in audio books, Caz AAR | Tagged | 3 Comments

Pitch Perfect 2. I liked it. Here’s why.

Pitchperfect2I just returned from seeing Pitch Perfect 2 with my 19 year old daughter. We both enjoyed it thoroughly. I, however, am in the minority in my social media feeds. The movie is being soundly criticized for being not funny enough, not genuine enough, not interesting enough. And those are just the nots. It’s also taking heat for its overproduced musical numbers, its flat portrayal of ethnic stereotypes, and for not giving Anna Kendrick enough room to charm.

I don’t care. In fact, I see much of the same criticism of the film as being like that so often directed at romance. In review after review, movie critics see the flaws–which bedevil so many major mainstream films (almost all of which are hyper-violent and/or animated)–and not the pretty fabulous accomplishments.

First of all, the gender-bias in hiring in Hollywood is so bad that the industry is currently being investigated by the ACLU. Only seven percent of the 250 highest grossing films have been made by women. So to have this movie, which is expected to be a huge summer hit and has been marketed as such, be directed by Elizabeth Banks is a win. (Her video interview with The Independent is great.)

Secondly, this movie has a decidedly female gaze. This term has come up lately both here at AAR and on many an other site when discussing the difference between the ways sex, women, and rape are portrayed on Game of Thrones as opposed to how they are on Outlander. In Pitch Perfect 2, there is little interest–with the exception of the expected low-brow humor provided by Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy–in depicting the young women in the film in a way that would, first and foremost, draw in the coveted American male demographic. As AO Scott said in his New York Times review of the film:

It’s all very cute, and kind of beside the point. The glory of “Pitch Perfect” is that it’s devoted, above all, to the friendship and shared ambition of young women, and that it finds plenty of room within that premise for raunchiness, ridiculousness and warmth. The casual busyness of the plots does not distract from the essence of the movie, which is the pleasure and occasional stress of hanging out with like-minded girlfriends as you ease your way toward adulthood. Dudes are nice to have around, but the pursuit of them is a whole lot less than the meaning of life.

“Pitch Perfect 2” is not as barbed as “Girls” or as anarchic as “Broad City” (it’s also studiously PG-13), but it lives in their neighborhood — or maybe a nearby suburb. And its arrival is another sign of the extent to which feminism is reshaping the landscape of American comedy, and not a moment too soon.

Thirdly, the film reflects the kind of world many many women would like to have as true. It’s a realm where the fat girl is alluring, the butch lesbian plans for marriage, boyfriends are always supportive of their girlfriends’ dreams and jobs, moms love their daughters and can still be their friends in a fairly sane way, men acknowledge their fears, and being kind and deeply connected to the women in your world pays off.  Is it unrealistic? Who cares? It’s a summer blockbuster, for gods sake. Is it a vision I hope will have more truth for my daughter’s generation than it has for mine? Absolutely.

I guess I’m tired of defending pop culture, as done by or for women. Taylor Swift just made music industry history  at age 25 and comment thread after comment thread suggest she has breast implants and no talent. The world’s big papers rarely review Nora Roberts–unlike male genre authors–and yet  her “books have spent a total of 1027 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list…that’s equivalent to over 19 consecutive years of weekly bestsellers.” Whether you like the 50 Shades books or not, they are an extraordinary publishing accomplishment. 

So, yes, I liked Pitch Perfect 2. (And I’m thinking it has the Obamas’ blessing as well–if you’ve seen it, you’ll know why I make that claim.) If you didn’t, that’s just fine. Taste is a preference, not a virtue.

Posted in Dabney AAR, Movies | Tagged | 8 Comments

The Second Half of the First Season of Outlander is almost over. We have thoughts.

Today AAR’s Melanie–who is all caught up on the show–shares her thoughts about this season of Outlander. She watches the show each week with her sister, Natalie. Here’s their take:


With much ado, the current season of Outlander, the Starz adaptation of the novels by Diana Gabaldon, is coming to a close, and I have been an avid watcher since the beginning. While I don’t have the cable channel myself, I’ve enlisted my sister’s subscription and DVR to the service of romance series television, and I’ve gotten her hooked.

As I start to write this, I have to admit two things: one, I have never read Outlander, or any of the series by Diana Gabaldon (I’m perpetually stuck at 6% of Outlander, for no other reason than I have too many things to read in a limited amount of time); and two, I drank an entire bottle of wine during last Saturday’s penultimate episode of the season, Wentworth Prison.

 In case I’m missing things (like large chunks of my memory and my liver), I’ve asked my sister, Natalie (who has read the books and is now on the fifth book of the series) to help me fill in the blanks. Her additions are in red.

We’re almost at the end of the first season of Outlander, and I’ve been loving it. Well, up until this last episode where (spoilers!) terrible things are happening. I knew something big was going to happen (Dabney sent me this link about the episode which this little sister found highly disappointing as reviews go. I mean, having read the books I know what to expect and after reading that review I find that it was highly melodramatic in relation to the latest episode), but no matter how much I asked, Natalie just would not tell me what was going to happen. So mean.

Most definitely NOT mean!! Just want to save all the good stuff until you see it. Plus as far as the book form goes I was not sure how they would portray certain events.

The loveliness of this series being transferred to television for our viewing pleasure is that they have stuck to the books very well. I mean if you sat there and followed along they use a good 80% of the dialogue from the book. <3

I’m trying to keep things spoiler-free here, so I’m not going to discuss any major plot points (plus, unless it was part of the show, I definitely wouldn’t know anything about it).

First of all, Jamie is a beautiful man.

No matter what terrible things are happening on screen, Sam Heughan makes me happy. And in this last episode, many terrible things happend. But Sam’s Jamie made me feel a little bit better about it. Plus, his character is masterfully created – Jamie is vulnerable in interesting ways, strong in others, more than a little headstrong, and definitely suffers from acting before thinking.

Lies!!! While I will have to agree that he is vulnerable, strong, definitely headstrong (like an ox), he does not, I repeat DOES NOT “suffer from acting before thinking.” Jamie was raised in a time when you have small windows to react, but he is always thinking. Just unlike Claire, you cannot always ken what he is thinking.

Secondly, Claire has the survival instincts of a lemming. She’s smart and strong, obviously a trained nurse, and used to working near the front of World War II. Why does she continue to act as though she’s in the 1940s? What is it that she just doesn’t get about the 1700s?

The little sister disagrees! Claire knows how to be independent, but she takes the highroad when she is back in time, in part, because she knows she must allow her husband, Jamie, to be a man in his time. As the story goes on you learn just how strong of a woman she is and you understand better why she acts like such a sissy or lemming, as Melanie calls her most of the time.

I do really like her, though. Caitriona Balfe is a fabulous actress, and her beauty fits well in both the 1940s and the 1700s. Claire really is a strong female character and is unapologetic about the things that make her fit in less in the 1700s. For example, she’s quite fond of drinking. I fully support this.

She’s able to translate a lot of her skills (from nursing to building a fire you don’t have to get up constantly to add logs to) to things useful for the 1700′s time period, and also use her knowledge of the era, thanks to her modern-day husband, to navigate the political scene. I doubt I would be able to do as well in that situation.

It has been really hard to watch that whole scenario from the outside (by which I mean my living room).  In the beginning I LOVED Frank, but Randall (Tobias Menzies plays both men.) has poisoned my sense of him and so you get that awkward uncomfortable, squirm in your seat feeling when you think of them. But, alas, Claire handles it with the utmost, unnatural calm that she uses in almost all situations.

And oh, the chemistry between Claire and Jamie!


I wasn’t expecting it to be quite as wonderful as it was. They really are quite beautiful together, and it’s not just because actors are generally a beautiful species. When they work together, they really work together. It’s definitely more about how their characters mesh than how they look kissing. And doing other things. Though again, they are pretty people, so that certainly doesn’t hurt.

Speaking of chemistry, all of the sex scenes (of which there are many – be prepared to see Claire’s breasts, and so much Jamie butt) are beautifully done, even some of the more awkward ones. The show is very careful about keeping the sexual moments (and really, the entire show in general) in realm of the feminine gaze. The sex is all about Claire and her pleasure, instead of watching her as Jamie, which keeps things from being pornographic while still getting pretty darn specific. It actually fits perfectly with romance as a genre, and I’m quite pleased with the result.

And, of course, the scenery is absolutely stunning. Each image works like a beautiful picture, and I want to be there with them. Except with electricity. And the internet. And a bathtub with hot running water.

Looking back over the course of the season, there are very few moments that do not move the plot along, which is amazing for a world that is so huge. As I said, I haven’t read any of the books, so I don’t know if there are things missing, but I’m looking forward to more – I’d watch the whole series this way.

Having read the books I will say that I hope they get to complete the whole series. There are moments that have you sighing with the beauty of it, moments I find myself giggling all by myself whilst reading the series, and times I cringe and worry and read as fast as I can to resolve whatever has happened. I have thoroughly enjoyed this series. I dread the day that I get to the final chapter of the final book.

Have you been watching Outlander? Are you waiting for the season to end, so you can binge watch the whole thing (which, now that I think about it, is a great idea. Which they are actually doing on the Starz Channel Memorial day Weekend starting at 2 pm CT and leading up to the Season Finale!!!!!)? Let us know what you think!

AAR’s Melanie and her sister Natalie

Posted in Melanie AAR, Television | Tagged | 69 Comments