Friday, April 24, 2009

Chao, Readers! I've Off for a Week!

It's that time of year, again - my University choir is going on its annual tour to various small towns, spreading joy and madness and song and glitter with our voices and handbells. I had a great time on my last two tours, and I'm looking forward to this one. I have my camcorder, I have my music binder, and I'm ready to go.

The downside of this is that I won't be posting any reviews on my blog for a bit more than a week. We leave tomorrow and don't return until May 3rd, and by then I'm usually exhausted from the crazy amounts of fun-ness (fun-ity?) I've had. However, as a parting gift before I'm whisked out of personal contact, I present a preview of the books I will be reviewing soon - that is, the books I will be reading on my trip for the long busrides. I chose these books from my TBR pile very carefully - I made sure to mix it up a bit to make sure if I was bored with one book that I wouldn't be stuck with the exact same type of book for the rest of the trip. This means I didn't bring books all by the same author, or all by authors I knew, or all in the same subgenre, so, without more ado:

The Book I'm Already Reading:
The Perils of Pleasure, by Julie Anne Long. But why are you reading this, you may be wondering, since you gave her debut novel such a spanking on your blog? Well, two reasons - 1) despite her short-bus characters in The Runaway Duke, Julie Anne Long has truly beautiful writing that I've found has been rarely matched in other romances, so I thought I'd try again on one of her later novels and 2) I won this novel in a contest so it was already on my TBR pile and I'm too much of a book whore to throw out free books. So we'll see how that goes.

The Historical By the Author I Know:
To Sir Phillip, With Love, by Julia Quinn. Truth be told, I'm a little worried about this one. Many readers consider Romancing Mr Bridgerton to be the peak of the Bridgerton series (even though I was wasn't entirely impressed with it), with the other entries going downhill from there. Also, while reading RMB, I quite disliked Eloise (and this is her book) because I thought her a shrill nosy hypocrite who will annoy the everliving shit out of her friends to get at their secrets but retreats in offense if anyone asks after her own. But who knows? Maybe she'll meet her match who annoys the everliving shit out of her and gives her a taste of her own medicine.

The Historical By the Author I Don't Know:
Untouched, by Anna Campbell. Campbell is a relatively new author on the scene whose debut novel Claiming the Courtesan caused a firestorm of controversy in the "does forceful seduction equal rape" department. I really can't comment on it, because I made a conscious decision not to read Claiming the Courtesan and I don't think I ever will. The story (hero falls in love with heroine, heroine leaves to start new life, hero kidnaps heroine and makes love to her under slightly less than romantically consensual circumstances, hero and heroine fall in love) frankly does sound rather repugnant to me and altogether not that interesting - so considering the size of my TBR pile I decided there's no point in bothering with it. But again, I can see how this could be one of those Taming of the Shrew is-it-abuse-or-do-they-both-need-it-to-be-better-people arguments.

However, just because one of her novels doesn't interest me doesn't mean I have to write her off altogether, and the plot of Untouched really caught me: hero has been trapped in his house since he was fourteen, has never touched or really spoken with a woman, and somehow has to learn to adapt to the heroine, who is suddenly chucked in there with him by hero's evil uncle to work off his "man needs." A virgin hero, you say? I've encountered too many Duke of Slut heroes to count these days so a story with a virgin hero always catches my attention. Plus, it got good reviews.

The Contemporary By an Author I Know:
Fast Women, by Jennifer Crusie. The last one of hers I read was Welcome to Temptation and it was a hella long time ago. It's time I caught up, wouldn't you say?

A Fantasy By an Author I Don't Know:
Lord of the Fading Lands, by C. L. Wilson. I started out a fantasy reader and then become a romance reader later - so I was intrigued by the book, as well as the crazy-good reviews it's been getting. There's always been something about immortal heroes that turns me off, somehow - I think I have trouble imagining how everyday troubles and problems and relatable angst could be experienced by a dude who's lived for a thousand years, but again - fantasy. Romance. Crazy good reviews. Also - thanks to a bizarre conglomeration of random luck that caused me to win several draws at once, I won the first three books of this series for free.

So, dear readers, even though you won't have new posts of mine to read for a while, at least you'll have an idea of what to look forward to once I get back. See you soon!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

RWA workshop schedules are up! Hooray! What I will be doing at RWA:

Yet another reason to be excited about RWA: the Workshop Schedule is up! I'm so excited. As disorganized as I can be about other aspects of my life, I love planning things in advance, so I've already started picking what workshops I might like to see, and what I'll be doing at the conference. Of course, all this is bound to change with or without notice, but hey, if I stick to this even a little, I might get to meet some of you guys there!

Tuesday, July 14th:
I arrive. I eat. I sleep. I don't think I arrive early enough to check out any grand sights, but who knows? Maybe I'll meet someone.

Wednesday, July 15th:
7:00 AM - 5:30 PM

-Today I register! Also, although there are no workshops, I hear it's still pretty busy so I'll try to socialize and glom onto a group so that I don't have to sightsee by myself.
-Also: GOODY ROOM. It's open! I'm SO THERE.
5:30-7:30: Literacy Booksigning! The list of who's attending won't be released until may, but there's bound to be someone there whose work I adore enough to buy all their books and have them signed! For charity, yes, that's it!
8:00-9:00: First Timer's Orientation. This will probably be a good thing - to make sure I'm not totally swamped by all the things to do!

Thursday, July 16th:
8:30-10:15 AM:
Opening Session, Featuring Janet Evanovich. I've honestly never read any of her books (although my mum and sister have - and they LOVE her, so I'll take pictures), but I'm not missing the opening session of my first first RWA National Conference!
12:15-2:00 PM: Keynote Luncheon, featuring Linda Howard. Again, not familiar, but who knows what I can learn? Plus - food!

2:00 - 3:00 PM
Hot Vampires, Demon Slayers, and Enchantresses: the Many Flavors of Fantasy (CRAFT)
Speakers: Pati Nagle and Mary Jo Putney
Best-selling, RWA Honor Roll author Mary Jo Putney and fantasy author Pati Nagle discuss the varieties and core fantasies of paranormal romance.

I was to see this one because the novel I'm working on is a fantasy, and this could definitely help me apply my fantasy writing experience to romance (with which I am moderately less experienced).

Backup Workshop (i.e., in case the first one's full):
What Not to Write (CRAFT)
Speakers: Eloisa James and Carrie Feron
New York Times best seller and Barnes & Noble reviewer Eloisa James and her Avon editor share a list of don’ts, covering such topics as genres, writing styles, hooks, plots, and creativity.

Eloisa James! And I can always learn some more "don't"s.

3:15-4:15 PM
Emotion: the Heart of the Novel (CRAFT)
Speaker: Brenda Novak
Join RWA Honor Roll author Brenda Novak for an in-depth examination of how every aspect of writing relates to heightening reader emotion.

This sounds like something good - I want to convey really tight emotion in my novel - I have a lot of humour and magic, but I'm uncertain as to how to provoke really good emotion.

Backup Workshop: Eh, the other ones in this timeslot aren't quite my cup of tea - so maybe a break or some sight-seeing?

4:30-5:30 PM
How to Live in Another Century or Just Sound Like You Did (RESEARCH)
Speaker: Lauren Willig
New York Times best-selling author Lauren Willig offers strategies for acquainting yourself with another century’s sights, people, and politics, and how to create the illusion of a specific time period, while maintaining the balance between historical accuracy and demands of the narrative.

YES! I need to learn how to research! The way I'm doing it now (reading, taking notes on index cards) seems so slow and I feel as if I haven't written in ages. I'd love to know if there's a different way to do it.

Backup Workshop:
How Do I Love Thee? Using the Techniques of Poetry to Strengthen Your Prose (CRAFT)
Speaker: Nancy Herkness
Princeton University-trained poet and romance author Nancy Herkness demonstrates how word choice, rhythm, and image control can heighten the emotional and descriptive power of your prose.

Second only to great characters, I love love love beautiful writing, and there are few authors who can manage a beautifully poetic turn of phrase. This could be something really useful.

After this I'm pretty much free. I'll try to converse with people and maybe meet up with some other bloggers or people who share similar interests and try to travel in a group. Really, this is what I'm the most worried about. I'm not going to know anybody there and sometimes I'm shy or uncomfortable when it comes to talking to people I don't know but I'm sure I'll manage if the only other option is to mope alone in my room!

8:00-Midnight: Moonlight Madness Bazaar. I have no idea what they sell, but I might as well find out, eh?

Friday, July 17th:
7:30-8:30 AM:
Continental breakfast. Yum yum.

8:30-9:30 AM
Mastering Your Domain: Research and Development of the Paranormal World (RESEARCH)
Speakers: Alyssa Day, Stephanie Julian, and Melissa Mayhue
Three paranormal writers and admitted research geeks will show you where to look and what to look for when blending folklore and mythology with modern genre fiction for extraordinary world-building.

Oh HELL YES. Worldbuilding! I need help with worldbuilding! Mostly because I'm using a created world PLUS a world based on an actual historical time period so that's like two types of research, argh, what have I wrought? -_-;

Backup Workshop:
Creating the Believable Anti-Hero: a Stepped Approach to Creating Believable Villains (CRAFT)
Speaker: Bethany Oliver
Use the same principals as the Hero's Journey and learn how to ramp up your antagonist's motivations beyond surface conflict to create a truly worthy opponent.

This could be useful for how I treat Bertram, my novel's eeeevil villain. Right now I've made him basically power hungry (and maybe a little obsessive-compulsive) but otherwise I've got nada. This workshop could help.

9:45-10:45 AM
How to Write the Breakout Book (CRAFT)
Speaker: Joan Johnston
What elements does your book need to raise it to the next level? A New York Times best-selling author shares tips on ramping up character, plot, and conflict.

I'm kinda of trying to write a breakout book (namely, my first), so this could give me some interesting tips.

Backup: Eh, again, not much in this timeslot. Time for a coffee break!

11:00 AM - 12:00PM
Paranormals: Writing Outside the Box (PUBLISHING)
Speakers: Kelley Armstrong, Jeaniene Frost, Melissa Marr, and Erika Tsang
Three New York Times best-selling authors and an Avon executive editor discuss the burgeoning urban fantasy/paranormal romance market for both adults and young adults.

Since I'm writing an historical(ish) fantasy, I'm more than eager to see how paranormals fare with the industry. I'm also up for YA tips, too.

Look Who's Talking: Mastering POV and Tense (CRAFT)
Speaker: Susan Lyon
Whether past or present, award-winning author Susan Lyons will help you find the perfect tense for your story, as well as through whose eyes the story should be told.

This is something I sometimes have trouble with - tense and POV come to me innately, so when I make mistakes I sometimes find it hard to identify where I've gone wrong and how I can fix it.

12:15-2:00PM: Awards Luncheon, featuring Eloisa James. ELOISA JAMES! And food.

2:00-3:00 PM
It's Not the Hottest Genre, So How Do Debut Historical Romance Authors Get Six-Figure Deals? (PUBLISHING)
Speakers: Helen Breitwieser, Courtney Milan, Kristin Nelson, Sherry Thomas, Tracy Anne Warren, and Tessa Dare
Two agents and their debut historical romance clients, who were initially bought for six figures, discuss the how and the why behind these big deals.

Um, I'm writing an historical(ish) romance, I love money, and I really don't want to get any other sort of job other than writing. Good enough?

You Say Tomato, I Say To-Motto: How Character Motto Influences Plot, Conflict, & Other Story Elements (CRAFT)
Speaker: Susan Gable
Character motto impacts every decision, every choice, every action your character makes. Award-winning author Susan Gable examines how character motto can influence everything from setting details to the character growth arc, plot and conflict.

Characters are slippery with me, I write them with a tiny bit of an idea about them, and then let them progress on their own, but maintaining consistency is hard.

3:15-4:15 PM
Why We Love Mr. Darcy: Insiders Tips on the Historical Market (PUBLISHING)
Speakers: Elizabeth Boyle, May Chen, and Laura Lee Guhrke
Two RITA-winning authors and an Avon editor share the scoop on what makes a historical rise to the top of an editor's pile and offer tips on crafting your perfect historical—with or without Mr. Darcy.

I know, my novel can be considered a fantasy but at heart it's a Regency. Plus I love Guhrke's books to pieces so of course I'll show up.

The Wit, Wisdom, and Writing Advice of Jennifer Crusie (CRAFT)
Speakers: Jennifer Crusie, Sarah Frantz, Pamela Regis, and Jennifer Van Slooten
Professors Sarah Frantz, Pamela Regis and Jessica Van Slooten examine the humor and writing advice in the novels of New York Times best-selling author Jennifer Crusie, who will respond to the literary criticism of her novels.

It's Jennifer Crusie - who are we kidding?

Love Your Voice (CRAFT)
Speakers: Laurie Schnebly Campbell and Julie Rowe
A hands-on session to help you discover what makes your writing voice special, and how to capitalize on your natural strengths.

One of my goals is to help develop my particular voice and help apply it to a larger writing format such as a novel.

4:30-5:30 PM
What Came First, the Plot or the Character? The Yin and Yang of Creating Great Characters within Great Plots (CRAFT)
Speakers: Julie Kenner and Kathleen O'Reilly
Award-winning authors Julie Kenner and Kathleen O’Reilly interweave character and plotting techniques to help writers create page-turning stories that are truly unforgettable.

Yet another thing I'm having trouble balancing in my novel. This sounds like something really interesting.

12 Stages of the Writer’s Adventure: Write from the Inside Out (WRITERS LIFE)
Speaker: Beth Barany
Creativity coach and multi-published author Beth Barany examines ways to increase self-knowledge and write better by learning to harness the power of the 12 stages of the hero’s journey.

Hero's journey? I'm intrigued.

5:45-6:45 PM
Nothing. There are two workshops - one on body disposal and one on sex through history. Maybe it's time for supper, parties, and more sightseeing!

Saturday, July 18th:
7:30-8:30 AM:
Continental breakfast again.

8:30-9:30 AM
Learn to Rewrite: Finishing the Manuscript Is Just the Beginning (CRAFT)
Speaker: Anna DeStefano
Join best-selling, Romantic Times award-winning author Anna DeStefano as she shares tools and techniques for navigating the editorial revisions necessary to sell your next manuscript.

Oh crap YES I need to learn how to rewrite my 146 000 word novel into something moderately readable! Please show me how!

The Art of Layering: from First Draft to Final Manuscript (CRAFT)
Speaker: Renee Halverson
Award-winning inspirational author Renee Halverson demonstrates how to layer emotion, senses, setting, backstory, and moral tension into a manuscript for seamless, powerful impact.

Honestly, this workshop is pretty much tied with the first one. I might have to flip a coin.

Unveiling the Mystery of How Book Covers Come About (PUBLISHING)
Speaker: Deeanne Gist
A behind-the-scenes look at the making of an actual book cover.

This one is out of pure curiosity - I've seen gorgeous covers, horrendous covers, and completely "m'eh" covers. How do they get chosen?

Get Your Acts Together (CRAFT)
Speaker: Blythe Gifford
Learn how the four-act story structure can help keep your external story, character arcs, and the developing love relationship working together through great beginnings, dramatic turning points, exciting climaxes, and endings to sigh for.
If my crazy train-wreck of a novel needs anything - it's more structuring. *sigh*

11:00 AM - 12:00 PM
From Hook to Happy Ending: Using High Concept and Conflict to Make Your Historical Novel Rock (CRAFT)
Speakers: Gayle Callen, May Chen, Margo Maguire, and Paige Wheeler
Two multipublished Avon authors, an Avon editor, and an agent discuss ways to use conflict and high concept to create a compelling historical novel.

Does my novel have a high concept? Oh yes - so high even I have trouble keeping up with it. This sounds like a great opportunity.

Pitfalls to Pratfalls: Adding Humor to the Romance (CRAFT)
Speakers: Suzanne Enoch and Karen Hawkins
Two RWA Honor Roll authors take a fast, fun, and funny look at ways to insert humor into your manuscript without losing pacing or flow.
Suzanne Enoch writes legitimately funny stuff in her historicals - this could be useful.

Turning Points (CRAFT)
Speaker: Jennifer Crusie
Turning points are the key to pacing and plot development, says this New York Times best-selling author. Learn what we mean when we talk about turning points and beats, then explore ways to use these tools to tighten and focus plots and scenes.

Jennifer Crusie - who are we kidding?

12:00-12:45: Squeeze in lunch.

12:45 - 1:45
Our Favorite Flavors: What it Takes to Succeed in Some of Today’s Most Popular Romance Subgenres (CRAFT)
Speakers: Allison Brennan, Gaelen Foley, Holly Jacobs, and Gena Showalter
Four best-selling authors from four different subgenres present an engaging side-by-side comparison of how they handle the fundamentals in their specific fields. Hear these rising stars discuss how they handle those items common to all romances and the challenges inherent in each subgenre.

One writes historicals, another writes paranormals, and I don't want to narrow my horizons - so I could potentially learn quite a lot from this one.

Chemistry: How to Create the Sizzle that Will Keep Your Readers Glued to the Page (CRAFT)
Speaker: Sherry Thomas
Join historical author Sherry Thomas in a rigorous and fun analysis of what makes chemistry and what makes for better chemistry, as well as what common mistakes writers make.
I'd love to develop good chemistry with my characters, but ... I wasn't all that impressed by the chemistry in Sherry Thomas' Private Arrangements.

2:00-3:00 PM
Agent Secrets: What Agents Really Want from an Unpublished Writer (CAREER)
Speaker: Laurie McLean
How do you capture an agent’s attention, make your query stand out, and entice one to say yes? Literary agent Laurie McLean unveils ancient agent mysteries and tells you how to give these elusive creatures exactly what they want.

Good tips on how to get the agent I'm looking for once I finally do finish my novel.

Boot Camp for Writers (CRAFT)
Speaker: Jenna Kernan
Help your manuscript find a happy home by making it as marketable as possible by learning about formatting, industry standards, characterization, dialogue, rewriting, editor peeves, dealing with rejection, and accepting “The Call.”

Yes, yes, yes. Help me with industry standards!

Body Language: Writing Compelling Characters of Both Sexes (RESEARCH)
Speaker: Mary Buckham
An acclaimed workshop presenter and romantic suspense author examines the real differences between men and women and how writers can ensure their characters are true to their gender.

I've written plenty of stories with male characters, but I'm always a little unsure if I'm getting things wrong (I grew up with two sisters, no brothers). This could definitely help.

MORE How to Make A Living Writing Romance Novels (CAREER)
Speaker: Stephanie Bond
RITA-winner Stephanie Bond breaks down the financial life cycle of a book and teaches writers how to best work within industry time lines to maximize their income. (2 hours)

This would have been my first choice (because my ultimate goal is to write novels for a living) - but for the fact that it's two hours.

The Birth and Feeding of a Series Story Arc (CRAFT)
Speakers: Claudia Dain, Sabrina Jeffries, and Deb Marlowe
Three different perspectives (an overarching mystery, a character arc, and a continuing battle between enemies) on how to plan, write, and market a series of individual romances where the overarching series itself contains an ongoing story.

Surprise! My novel is not only a high concept historical(ish) fantasy, but it's the first in a project SEVEN NOVEL ARC! Kill me now.

How to Use Screenwriting Techniques to Add Passion, Depth, and Immediacy to Your Novels (CRAFT)
Speaker: Victoria Johnson
Screenwriter, script supervisor, and author of All I Need To Know in Life I Learned from Romance Novels, Victoria Johnson shows how screenwriters keep their stories focused and urgent.
As some of my readers may be aware, I made a very nervous and tentative foray into screenwriting before I skittered back to trying a novel. But maybe this will help me get the best of both worlds!

Nothing on my plate. Supper, socializing - I must make sure to socialize, no matter how shy I am.

8:00-10:00 PM: The RITA awards! Time for crazy upsets, darkhorses and acceptance speeches!

10:00-Midnight: RITA & Golden Heart Reception. Partay

Sunday, July 19th
Go home. Sleep. Blog.

Now, bear in mind, this is just the jam-packed-OMG-caffeine-perfect world schedule. There's no way I'm going to be doing all of this - who knows how I'll be sidetracked or who I'll meet? I'm so excited.

Terrified, too, but excited. Who else is going to RWA? What workshops or events are you interested in seeing?

Rant Rant Rant - Sex in Romance

Warning: this post goes into Just the Sexiest Man Alive and other romance novels in detail. You have been warned.

One of my favourite activities after posting a review on my blog is to go around other blogs and review sites and read what other people think about it. It helps give me an idea of how my tastes mesh with others, and that comes in handy with book recommendations and such. For instance, more often than not, I agree with the All About Romance folks (we often share the same letter grade, even) while I disagree with others.

So after I posted my review of Julie James' Just the Sexiest Man Alive, I went looking around other websites and was disappointed by what I read. Not disappointed in the grades that people gave it - but rather the attitude towards the sexual content in the book. You see, Just the Sexiest Man Alive has no sex scenes. None. The characters have sex eventually, at the end, but not in a described, individual scene. However, several reviewers seemed to take issue with that, and that, in turn, made me a little angry.

The most egregious review, sadly, came from All About Romance's Sandy Coleman. She gave the novel a B-, and stated that, while she liked some parts, in the negative column she put: "in a shocking twist, there’s no sex – and I really mean that – and I definitely felt the lack. For a book being marketed as a romance, it’s an odd choice." And she wasn't the only one who made a similar complaint. Are you serious?

This is where my big beef and the reason for this rant comes in: now, I'm a creative person, and by no means am I opposed to sex in romance novels - books can (and should) come in all flavours of the rainbow, and a genre cannot thrive if people want to restrict the content.

What I, personally, do not like, is the increasingly prevalent belief that if the protagonists don't have sex (or a sex scene) then the novel isn't a romance. That's why I'm pissed off with reviewers like Sandy Coleman, who was apparently puzzled that Just The Sexiest Man Alive was marketed as a romance.

Really? So the fact that Taylor and Jason feel for each other the way they've never felt towards anyone else doesn't make it a romance?

So the fact that they engage in flirtatious banter doesn't make it a romance?

So the fact that the novel's central plot revolves around how Taylor and Jason overcome their personal fears and develop emotionally to understand and accept their love for each other doesn't make it a romance?

REALLY? So all it takes is a pen0r in a vajayjay and you have a romance?

Again, allow me to reiterate that my beef with reviewers like Sandy Coleman isn't the fact that they didn't like the novel because it didn't have sex in it. Everyone has different preferences for the books they read, just as everyone has their own particular Off Switch that kills their interest in a novel. My beef is with people who believe that sex is integral to the romance genre.

It is not.

I'm going to let you in on a little secret - most of the time, I couldn't care less about sex scenes in a romance. Mostly, I'm bored. At worse, they bog down the novel. In a few rare cases, they can be wonderful. But in 85% of the romance novels I read, the sex scenes are something I tolerate as inevitable, rather than enjoy as a part of the story itself. They don't really contribute very much to the development of the romance for me, and most of the time I don't care if they're there or not. Here's my rundown of how I, personally, evaluate sex scenes in a romance:

Is the Fact That The Characters Have Sex Necessary to the Narrative or the Realism of the Setting?
This is something that is often, at least to me, dependent on the time period of the romance. I read a lot of historicals, and because they often work within a time period that has strict social codes against premarital sex (at least against women), the narratives are not based on sex - they depend often on how the heroine and hero verbally spar, or on intrigue, class distinctions, and social or historical commentary. The way social situations and leisure activities were arranged in Regency and Victorian times, it's quite realistic for characters to fall in love without needing to have sex - and it often rings very false to me whenever Regency or Victorian heroines feel inexplicably unfulfilled because they haven't had sex yet.

Now, as far as contemporaries are concerned, in this day and age, committed relationships often do involve sex. So, if the fact that the characters aren't having sex by a certain point in their relationship causes readers to doubt the realism of the characters within the contemporary setting, then yes, of course I understand why the fact the characters have sex would be relevant. Similarly, in historicals where the protagonists are married (and I mean real, in-for-the-long-haul-married, not pretend-married or married-only-for-a-short-time-so-I-can-continue-my-life-married), sex is realistic and understandable.

In the case of Just the Sexiest Man Alive, Taylor and Jason don't have sex right away, and I believed it, because Taylor was depicted as a confident and controlled woman who nevertheless had severe trust issues with Jason's womanizing reputation. I totally understood how she wouldn't want to have sex with him if she couldn't trust him.

If the Fact That the Characters Have Sex is Necessary - Is the DEPICTION of The Characters Having Sex Equally Necessary?
This is what I usually have the most problems with - not the sex, but the sex scene. And, I think, this is what most reviewers had a problem with in Just the Sexiest Man Alive. Taylor and Jason do have sex - after Jason and Taylor admit their love for each other at the premiere of Jason's movie, they flee the scene and proceed to have sex on just about every surface of Jason's house. The reader knows this because the author hints at what they are doing through their dialogue and actions when they, er, come up for air. But she doesn't actually describe Taylor and Jason actually going at it. Again, I didn't find this objectionable at all, but other reviewers seemed to be bothered by it.

My question - why? Every writing class and critique group I've ever been a part of has repeated this mantra - if a scene does not contribute directly to the narrative of the overall story, it shouldn't be there. Lots of times I'll submit a story and people will tell me that this or that scene doesn't really fit, or, it's not relevant to the story and should be cut. Stories and manuscripts need to be streamlined. If the story already establishes the fact that the characters are having sex, why does there need to be a scene depicting it?

In many romances, the characters finally having sex is depicted as proof that the protagonists have moved to another, more intimate level of their relationship. In this case, the fact that the characters have sex is necessary to the novel because it shows the progression of the romance between the hero and heroine. But - but - but - what does the depiction of the protagonists having sex contribute to the narrative that the fact that they have sex does not?

I think of it this way: most characters in romance are human beings and eat, so naturally it's a given that as human characters, they will need to relieve themselves. While the fact that the characters need bathroom breaks is important in the sense that it tells us the characters are human beings, we don't come across very many scenes in books where the act of taking a dump is described in detail. Why? Because it's not necessary to the narrative at hand.

So many romance novels I read have sex scenes where nothing relevant is contributed to the story that wouldn't have been performed just as well with a cut-off scene of the characters walking into a bedroom (as an example). Again, 85% of sex scenes are this:

Hero: Sex?
Heroine: Yes please.
Hero: Left boob, right boob, downtown, sexx0r.
Heroine: That was awesome.
Hero: Yes it was.

That's it. This is why irrelevant sex scenes can be a detriment to a novel, because they subject the reader to a portion of the book where nothing happens, where the plot takes a 5-10 page pause in favour of lovingly depicted fun bits. It's like the literary equivalent of a commercial break - where the interesting show you're watching is interrupted by random pretty images.

That's not to say that sex scenes cannot be relevant - there's just needs to be a reason for why we need the detail.

Good Examples:
  • if the heroine's virginity or lack thereof comes as a surprise to the hero (or supports his suspicions)
  • if the scene confronts and deals with a character's fears that are provoked by sex. I found this while reading the lovely sex scene in Sophia Nash's A Dangerous Beauty: Rosamunde endured a terrible marriage to an abusive husband who treated her like an object he owned, in the bed, and out of it - which left her with a terror of being touched by a man's hands. Hero Luc's solution? To undress and sexually pleasure her - without using his hands. The description of the act made this scene for me and was completely relevant to how Luc and Rosamunde react to each other.
  • if something revealed during the sex scene (a birthmark, a nervous tic, a certain preference for how the act should be performed) is relevant to the the story later on. I encountered this while reading Welcome to Temptation, where not only do we discover something new about Sophie's personality in the sex scene, but the dialogue the two have during the scene comes back to haunt them later on. Temptation's also a good example of judicious sex scenes because Sophie and her hero Phin have lots and lots of sex, but very few sex scenes - only the ones that matter to the narrative are the ones that are described.
  • if the way the sex is performed affects how the characters relate to each other later on. One example is the deflowering scene in The Secret Pearl: it isn't just the fact that Adam and Fleur have sex that's important - but the way Adam looks, touches her, and behaves during the act that explains her fears of him later
For bad examples, well, sex scenes that serve only to tell us things that are a given (i.e. that the hero/ine's good in bed) or things we already know (the hero/ine is smokin' hot), really don't need to be stretched out that long.

The point I'm trying to get at here, and how I deal with sex in romance, is that sex is a part of romance, but it's just as important as every other part - such as the protagonists' emotional compatability, their dialogue, how they relate to each other, their common interests.

Similarly, the sex scene can be a part of a narrative - but it should be treated the same as every other part of the narrative. Every other scene and line of dialogue in a romance novel has to justify its presence in the narrative. For me, the sex scene has to do the same. I won't tolerate a 6-page scene describing the quality of the heroine's china cabinet if it doesn't relate to the story, and that means I won't tolerate a 6-page scene describing how the heroine and hero have sex if it's not relevant. It also means that a sex-scene-less novel doesn't disqualify it as a romance in my eyes, if adding a sex scene wouldn't have contributed anything anyway. But this is just my ranting opinion.

Now, I'm more than a little eager to hear what you think. What do you expect from a romance in terms of sex scenes? What do you prefer in how your romance novels depict sex? Do you care? Are you disappointed by romance novels where the characters don't have sex, and why or why not?

Monday, April 20, 2009

"Just the Sexiest Man Alive," by Julie James

Alternate Title: Just the Funniest Romance Written

The Chick:
Taylor Donovan. A hotshot lawyer working in L.A. (on loan from her Chicago firm), as the newbie in the office, she's tasked with helping world-famous actor Jason Andrews with his upcoming legal thriller.
The Rub: Jason Andrew is none other than the Jason Andrews, pretty much the most famous actor on the planet, complete with an Academy Award and an ego the size of the Kodak Theatre. And now Taylor has to babysit him.
Dream Casting: Rashida Jones.

The Dude: Jason Andrews - world famous movie star. His charm, good looks, entertaining movies, and crazy fame give him an all-access pass to any restaurant, movie studio, and female in the greater Los Angeles area. When he finds out the consultant assigned to help him portray a realistic lawyer for his film is a very attractive woman, he thinks he's got a new toy to play with.
The Rub: That is, until he comes up against Taylor's no-nonsense attitude - the first velvet rope in years that hasn't been lifted for him.
Dream Casting: Patrick Dempsey.

The Plot:

Taylor's Boss: Babysit Jason Andrews because all of our real employees are too busy!

Taylor: Wait - the Jason...

Jason: My people will talk to your people! *flees to Vegas*

Taylor: *NOT AMUSED*

Jason: Hey, sorry I missed our appointment! But it wasn't any hassle, right? *Megawatt Smile*

Taylor: It was a huge hassle, and you're a dick.

Jason: Hmmm, maybe I didn't say this clearly enough - it wasn't any hassle, right? *Jedi-Celebrity Megawatt Smile*

Taylor: Um, maybe I didn't say this clearly enough - YOU ARE A DICK.

Jason: Wh-what? This walking pair of breasts won't immediately kneel before me and worship my awesomeness! My whole worldview has toppled! I don't know up from down! And why is that so damn hot? I know! I'll make her jealous! That's a woman's greatest weakness!

Taylor: *starts dating his celebrity rival*

Jason: ... I am a moron. I'm sorry, I love you.

Taylor: I'm sorry! I'm afraid of commitment!

Jason: Well, that's just not fair!

Taylor: You're right, I'm sorry, let's get married.

Jason: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Workaholic Heroine

1 Superfamous Man-Boy Hero

Several Paparazzi

1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival

1 Romantically Lacklustre Fake Rival

1 Concussion

1 Stack of Chocolate Chip Pancakes

1 Very Bad Ex

The Word: I won this *signed!* copy of Just the Sexiest Man Alive from Book Binge, and I've only now gotten around to reading it, because in general my romance diet is an entree of historicals with contemporaries being a nice occasional side dish. But hearing all the positive reviews made me pick it up off my TBR pile, and boy, am I glad I did.

Taylor Donovan is a rising-star lawyer who kicks ass and takes names in the courtroom. When her Chicago firm sends her to L.A. for a high-profile sexual harassment lawsuit, she's eager to prove herself, and so far her opposing counsel has been dining out on the dust from her wake. However, her superiors soon hand her a more difficult task: one of their clients, Jason Andrews, is set to star in a legal thriller and wants to hire a lawyer as a consultant. Taylor Donovan's plate is already full to bursting, but successful careers aren't made by saying "no" and she's also secretly intrigued by the chance to meet such a celebrity in person.

Jason Andrews is the most famous man in Hollywood - a box-office-smashing, Academy-Award-Winning, People's-Sexiest-List-Making, bona fide celebrity who goes through women like toilet paper. For his upcoming legal thriller, he wants to consult a real lawyer to make sure his portrayal is realistic.

When Jason blows off his appointments with Taylor to go party in Vegas, Taylor's interest soon curdles into disgust at his spoiled party-boy antics. When Jason finally does show up, his plans to cow her into submission with his billion-dollar smile crumble when faced with Taylor's righteous indignation. Instead, Taylor uses a mock-cross-examination to intellectually spank Jason and laugh in his face.

Jason is used to women throwing themselves at him, so the fact that Taylor not only refuses him, but bests him shocks his system, and not entirely in a bad way. He subsequently uses his influence to weasel more time with her.

I enjoyed the heck out of this novel. It was hilarious, heartfelt, and hella entertaining, mainly thanks to how the author doesn't compromise the characters to fit a particular storyline, but instead creates well-rounded, realistic, relatable characters who create an interesting storyline all on their own.

Taylor Donovan is easily one of my favourite heroines yet - she's someone who genuinely adores and is good at her work, and is reasonably well-adjusted. She recently endured a bad breakup with a sleazy fiance, but she doesn't let it get her down - she just throws herself into her work. She's a professional, and so long as she works hard and pulls 110%, it's unlikely she'll discover her job cheating on her with an attractive teaching assistant. Ahem. Not that's she's bitter or anything.

As much as I loved Taylor - I loved Jason more. Oh, Jason, you oblivious man-child. Julie James earns my eternal gratitude for not pulling any punches in her character development of Jason. He's not a "fake rake" whose crazy spoiled exploits are just unfair exaggerations of the paparazzi. He's not a down-to-earth dude who hates fame and wishes he could escape the glaring lights and retire to some farm in Maine with the love of his life. He's not an aloof artiste who looks upon the celebrity lifestyle with cool disdain.

Just as Taylor Donovan loves her job, Jason loves his work as well as the lifestyle that comes with it, and his character clearly shows the effects of entitlement, instant gratification, and fan worship. He legitimately thinks he's king of the fucking world and brags about banging a dozen NBA cheerleaders and is accustomed to having people wait on him hand and foot. Most of his thought processes mirror those of a spoiled fifteen-year-old, but it makes sense why most of his cause-and-effect and problem-solving skills are simplistic, because he's used to people picking up the phone on the first ring and scrambling to get him the best table and pulling a few strings to make sure People's Sexiest Man Alive (hey! that's the name of the book!) walks away happy.

So much of the novel's enjoyment comes from reading Jason's befuddlement as none of his tried-and-true celebrity ploys work on Taylor. It sends nearly his entire social frame of reference out the window, leaving him vulnerable and awkward. That's not to say his celebrity ploys still don't work on others, but as he grows to love and depend on Taylor for the emotional grounding she provides, he starts using his Hollywood God powers for good - that is, instead of "Pleasure me! Jason Andrews wills it!", we get "Pleasure Taylor! Jason Andrews wills it!"

This also doesn't mean that Jason doesn't give as well as he takes - he may be used to getting what he wants, but he's an intelligent guy who's completely willing to use unorthodox methods to get what he wants. Jason and Taylor's interactions zing as they spar with each other - just as Taylor pecks at Jason's celebrity-bubble, Jason chips away at Taylor's nervousness and social inhibitions.

That being said, Jason's fame is the main obstacle in the novel. While Taylor soon starts to feel the warm-and-fuzzies for Jason, she's stymied by his profession. He's a movie star, after all - getting people to love him is his job, so how much of what she feels is real and how much is stardust? Secondly, she can't help but notice how many of Jason's whims are catered to and can't help but wonder if her refusal is the main reason Jason finds her attractive.

Thirdly, Jason's fame as a talented actor only narrowly beats out his fame as a notorious womanizer and while Taylor's break-up with her cheating fiance isn't a melodramatic issue (her ex never appears in the book), it's enough to give her serious pause. Her ex had a similar womanizing reputation, and his betrayal continues to influence how she approaches relationships.

I empathized totally with Taylor and her doubts and completely understood where she was coming from. She has a legitimate reason for suspecting playboys and if Jason were anyone other than the novel's protagonist I might have doubted him, too. Jason is a playboy, and Taylor had already gone through the experience of thinking her womanizing fiance was capable of giving up all other women because she was "special," she was "the one" - that is, until he cheated on her with his teaching assistant. How, she wonders, is she to assume Jason is any different?

At the same time, the author deftly shows us how incredible fame and fortune don't automatically make someone the son of Satan, and how underneath all the glamour and obliviousness, Jason is actually a pretty swell guy. This is achieved mainly through the contrast the author provides with the character of Scott Casey, an ambitious up-and-comer obviously modelled on Orlando Bloom (he got his "It Boy" status thanks to a lauded secondary role as a sexy archer in a fantasy epic) who tries to manipulate Taylor in order to stick it to Jason, currently at the top of the Hollywood heap. Jason may be thoughtless with his immense resources, but he never hesitates to use them to help those he cares about.

I also enjoy how, ultimately, the romance doesn't compromise Jason's profession by the end of the novel. As I mentioned before, Jason does not suddenly realize that fame is a festering canker on the skin of his soul and retire to some isolated paradise to make People's Sexiest Babies Alive with Taylor. Just as Taylor's job as a lawyer is important to her, Jason's acting is important to him and the fame and glitz don't detract from his dedication to his work. Part of the reason he wanted a legal consultant in the first place was so he could give the best performance he could, because that's the kind of person he is. The flocks of crazy fans and paparrazi and annoying reporters are simply aspects of life that he, and eventually Taylor, learn to deal with as inevitable parts of life. I really admired this - it's easy to consider acting to be an "easy" career just because of the crazy perks that go with it, but Julie James gives it a measure of respect.

I'm a character-driven person when it comes to reading romances, so in my reviews I end up discussing the characters more than I do, say, pacing and style, but Julie James' writing style, particularly in her depiction of Taylor's and Jason's POVs, is too hilarious to go without a mention. The points of view convey so much about the characters while at the same time being incredibly funny. Taylor, despite her setbacks and obstacles, has a pretty confident outlook on life and I laughed at the swipes she takes at her obvious inferiors. Similarly, Jason's POV also inspires chuckles - particularly whenever he thinks he and Taylor are about to have sex and subtly moves furniture and utensils out of the way, just in case.

Truly, Julie James' Just the Sexiest Man Alive impressed on all fronts. The characters were believable, the story fulfilling, the obstacles legitimate and well-developed, and the writing crisp and witty. I really can't come up with a single significant flaw about this entire novel. It's that good. Thank you, Book Binge!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

"Yours Until Dawn," by Teresa Medeiros

WARNING: SERIOUS SPOILERS AHEAD. This novel has a pretty significant twist that smacked me right in the face. It's a well-developed surprise that really contributed to my overall enjoyment of this novel. However, I can't really go into my traditional in-depth review without spoiling the hell out of it. THIS IS A SPOILER THAT MIGHT BE WORTH BEING SURPRISED ABOUT IF YOU'RE THINKING ABOUT READING THE NOVEL. I gave the novel a B. It has really enjoyable moments and, as I previously mentioned, a hella good twist, but is marred by some creepy and implausible moments towards the end. Just a warning. If you've already read the book, don't care, or, in Ana from The Book Smugglers' case, hate it "with the force of a thousand hurricanes," by all means read on. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Alternate Title: Tale as Old as Time, Song as Old as Rhyme, Beauty and the Emotionally-Stunted Blind Man

The Chick: "Samantha Wickersham." This prim nurse with her dowdy clothes, "homely" spectacles, and dull auburn hair beats out, well, no candidates to land the job of nurse to the Earl of Sheffield, a social paragon turned shabby recluse thanks to the loss of his sight. Hey, at least the pay is good!
The Rub: Her charge is a hostile, self-pitying ass, the servants are wimps, and even the Earl's own family would rather have nothing to do with him. Hey, at least he's hot!
Dream Casting: Cranford's Lisa Dillon.

The Dude: Gabriel Fairchild, Earl of Sheffield. Gabriel led a charmed life - he had a loving family, great looks, money, fame, popularity - but it wasn't enough to charm the one girl he wanted.
The Rub: To prove to his crush that his love was true and his rakehell ways were over, he joined the Royal Navy to impress her. However, once he was blinded and scarred in battle, his fiancee dumped him.
Dream Casting: Simon Baker.

The Plot:

Samantha: Hey, I'm here about the job posting...

Beckwith, Gabriel's Butler: YOU'RE HIRED!

Gabriel: Grr! I will not be treated like a child! *smashes things* You are a poo-poo-head nurse and I want you to go away!

Samantha: Fine, I quit!

Gabriel: Wait! *trips on table, slashes throat on broken porcelain*

Samantha: Oh no! What a fool I was! I'll stay!

Gabriel: Heh heh heh, works every time...

Samantha: Here, let's try and get you to adapt to being blind...

Gabriel: *bonked on head* I CAN SEE!

Samantha: Exit stage left! *flees*

Gabriel: I need to find her!

Investigators: Okay, what does she look like?

Gabriel: Er, about that...

Samantha: *Holy Shit Secret Identity Revealed!*

Gabriel: What. THE. HELL. *brief pause* Let's get married!

Samantha: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Self-Pitying Cripple

1 Dowdy Nurse With a Secret Past

1 Noticeable But Still Sexy Facial Scar

2 Horny Servants

SEVERAL (intentional?) Beauty and the Beast References

1 Packet of Gooey Love Letters

1 Relationship-Aiding Pet

1 Faithless Fiancee

1 Sight-Depriving Head Injury

1 Sight-Restoring Head Injury

1 HOLY SHIT Secret Identity

The Word: This novel really surprised me. I mean really. I wasn't expecting to like it that much, although I still wanted to read it, because I've always been somewhat interested in stories with handicapped but still sexy heroes. Also, this novel set up a lot of expectations only to smash them to pieces and overall I enjoyed how the author played with my assumptions. However, this was by no means a perfect novel.

The novel begins routinely enough. Samantha Wickersham arrives at the country estate of the Earl of Sheffield to apply for a job as a nurse. The Earl, recently blinded and scarred in the Napoleonic wars, has frightened off every last one of his previous caretakers, and his family and loving staff are desperate for a replacement. Any replacement.

Gabriel Fairchild, Earl of Sheffield, just wants to be alone. For most of his life, he had the world on a string. He could have had any woman he wanted - but the only woman he wanted he couldn't have. He fell for Cecily March, a pretty young baronet's daughter who distrusted his declarations of affection because of his pampered rakehell reputation. Desperate to win her heart, he started a secret correspondence of rather embarrassingly purple love letters with her (the saccharine excerpts of which open each chapter in the novel). Finally, she said that if he could prove he was more than a coddled golden boy, she would marry him. Exultant, he joined the Royal Navy (a more democratic military branch than the Army) to prove his worth - only to end up sightless in a hospital, listening to his fiancee's pattering footsteps as she fled the hospital, never to return.

Six months later, he still hasn't really adjusted to being blind. Whenever he moves about his house, he's always crashing into things and smashing furniture and knocking things over. He eats with his hands like an animal because he cuts himself on cutlery he can't see. Most of the time he just stays in his room and mopes about the golden life he once had and the fiancee who deserted him. Meanwhile, his weenie staff of enablers keep the house dark and dusty and don't even bother to move furniture out of his way because he's strictly ordered them to leave the house exactly as it was before his injury.

Samantha, upon entering into her position, takes one look at the situation and goes "Oh, HELL NAW." While the servants are afraid to go against the master's orders, since Samantha's technically on Gabriel's father's payroll, Gabriel has no authority over her and she can piss him off however she likes so long as she does her job. With efficiency and pluck, she immediately starts countermanding all of his orders and provoking him into changing his self-pitying routine.

Gabriel violently resents Samantha's intrusion into his life and reacts accordingly. For the next few chapters, Samantha and Gabriel bicker and rant at each other in the expected fashion. Samantha thinks Gabriel's an arrogant prick, Gabriel thinks Samantha's a dried-up prude, etc. etc. Gabriel doesn't want to change his routine because he has no intention of living out his years as a blind man - he still hopes his condition is reversible. The relationship with Gabriel and Samantha really picks up once he's informed that his blindness is most likely permanent, and Samantha has to show him that life still has much to offer, once he learns to adapt and change to his current circumstances.

Now, while nothing in the plot precisely bothered me, a lot it of seemed familiar. Almost too familiar. Does any of this ring a bell?

-The hero is rude and smashes furniture in a rage
-The hero eats with his hands and has to relearn how to use a fork and knife
-The heroine chides the hero more for his bad temper than his marred looks
-The heroine reads to the hero
-The wimpy servants continually go "What would the master say?" and think there's no point in cleaning the house when there are no guests ("Life is so unnerving,/ For a servant who's not serving./ He's not whole, without a soul to wait upon...")
-The heroine (in a light yellow "buttercream" gown) and the hero (in "a deep blue cutaway tail coat") waltz alone in a massive ballroom. Seriously, is no one reminded of THIS:

I mean, really. I know that the archetypal Beauty and the Beast fairy tale (which in turn is an adaptation of the Cupid and Psyche story from Greek mythology) is a common basis for romance novels, and permits any number of interesting permutations, but I have to say I have never encountered a romance novel that reminded me so constantly and particularly of the 1991 Beauty and the Beast film by Walt Disney. And this is a movie I haven't seen for about a year (damn you, Disney vault!), and the comparisons still spring up.

Disney references aside, I still enjoyed the story up until this point. Gabriel swallows a great deal of pride and learns how to avoid obstacles with a cane and a dog. Samantha gets the warm and fuzzies for Gabriel. Gabriel's family shows up, and thanks to some nice character development the awkwardness between Gabriel and the Fairchilds feels realistic, with understandable reasons on both sides as to why they can't all get along as if nothing's happened.

However, the story takes a sharp turn after Gabriel takes a blow to the head while rescuing Samantha from a burning building (don't ask), and starts responding to light and shadow. When doctors reveal the blow dislodged a blood clot and his sight will eventually return in time, he proposes to Samantha. Samantha smiles, acts very happy, shares a night of torrid lovemaking with him, and then flees for the hills, knowing their relationship can never be.

Know why? You've been warned about spoilers so there's time to turn back now.

You sure?

It's because, as it turns out - "Samantha Wickersham" is none other than Cecily Samantha March, Gabriel's faithless fiancee! OMG! WTF! BBQ! Okay, okay, so there were hints throughout the book, and other readers may have figured it out beforehand, but I didn't, and boy was it a kick in the teeth! It was one of those surprises that made me want to skim the book over again to catch clues and hints, and made me see most of "Samantha"'s actions throughout the novel in an intriguing new light.

When Cecily fled that hospital upon seeing Gabriel blind and scarred, it wasn't out of repulsion, but out of terrible guilt for being such a selfish twit and demanding feats of bravery from him. Hearing rumours of his reclusive existence, she disguised herself as Samantha Wickersham and made herself a servant to atone for the injuries she did to him. Knowing Gabriel might recognize her and subsequently despise her once his sight fully returns, she skips town and returns to her existence as Cecily (whose family thinks she has just returned from a European tour).

The revelation of her true identity creates such a paradigm shift. Samantha seems like a bit of a martyr at the beginning of the book, with her determination to do all the shitwork since the servants refuse and her equally insistent defence of Gabriel's heroism and self-worth - but knowing her now as Cecily, it makes perfect sense. Also, Samantha's concern with her awkward glasses, dowdy clothes, and dull hair seems like by-the-book "unconventional beauty issues" of a less-than-supermodel-gorgeous heroine - but really, she's actually rather pretty under her disguise but frightened of being recognized for who she really is. While her secret identity took me by surprise, on a second read (er, skimming) of the book, her character still remains consistent.

And yes, while I see how Gabriel's recovery of his sight seems a little contrived, in this instance it creates a truly original conflict - he's in love with Samantha and wants to marry her, but has no idea what she looks like. Meanwhile, at a ball he recognizes Cecily and acts coolly towards her, because he has no idea that she's Samantha. In his head, he has two different ideas of the "women" he loved, never guessing they're the same person. His memories of loving Cecily are strongly visual - he remembers her blonde hair, her beautiful eyes, her coyly worded letters and girlish handwriting. His relationship with Cecily was mainly long-distance, because it was secret. His memories of Samantha, however, are sensual - he remembers the lemon scent of her perfume, the feel of her skin. Their relationship was close, intimate, and developed with touch and sound. I never found it unrealistic that Gabriel couldn't immediately peg Cecily and Samantha as one and the same.

However, just as I thought the story couldn't get more interesting (and just as I was getting really excited for when Gabriel finally founds out the truth), we get the scene.

Yes. The scene. The one scene that lowers this book's grade by an entire letter. WHY do these terrible scenes of badness have to come at the end of a book? It's like buying what you think is the perfect dress at a vintage shop only to discover a small burn mark on the back hem - everything else about the dress is good, except for this one flaw that suddenly makes the dress not fit for company anymore.

The egregious badness of this scene is terrible due to three factors: 1) It cheapens the characters involved, 2) it's implausible, and 3) it's entirely pointless to the narrative.

This scene occurs after Cecily discovers that Gabriel, his sight fully recovered, is re-enlisting in the Navy to fight Napoleon for a second time. Oh noes! She thinks. He's going to get himself hurt again! So what does she do? She shows up on his doorstep wearing a cloak with little else underneath. She flaunts her goodies and says "yes" to his long-ago proposal of marriage. Gabriel has a good laugh and says he doesn't love her and won't marry her and his heart belongs to Samantha, but he'll set up her as a mistress and give her presents if she puts out. She does. Gabriel falls asleep. Cecily leaves.

Let's start with problem #1 of this creepfest, shall we? I was under the impression when this scene began that Cecily would try and dissuade Gabriel from re-entering the Navy. Nope - it turns out she just wants to get her jollies while she still can. She essentially seduces Gabriel and encourages him to cheat on Samantha with her. Gabriel, in turn, despite saying that he loves Samantha and his heart isn't available anymore, nevertheless bangs her because she's sexy. This makes no sense to either character.

Samantha spent the better (in every sense of the word) part of this novel demonstrating how she's atoning for being selfish and thoughtless - but this is precisely what her actions in this scene are. She doesn't reveal herself, she doesn't try to convince Gabriel not to throw his life away, there's absolutely nothing that Gabriel gets out of having sex with Cecily, so really, it's all about her.

Similarly, Gabriel's spent the last 300 pages thinking Cecily is thoughtless and selfish and shallow (adding to the whole twisty mindfuck is the fact that Samantha corroborated this), and yet all she has to do is get naked and he can't keep his hands off her. So, even though he's promised his heart to Samantha and even though he considers Cecily a scheming chit and all-round lesser human being he's still willing to sleep with her because she's right there, right now. What the hell does that say about Gabriel's character? I read that scene and immediately consider Gabriel to be cheating on Samantha.

Yes yes yes I KNOW that Cecily and Samantha are the same person but that's not the point - the point is that Gabriel believes they are two people, so his actions and corresponding thought processes are the same as if he was actually cheating on Samantha. ICK x 1000!

#2: Secondly, Gabriel and Cecily get it on for an entire night without Gabriel ever even suspecting that she's really Samantha. During the whole loathsome exchange, Cecily demands that Gabriel keep the lights on and his eyes open (oh, and not to kiss her!), thinking that will somehow keep him from realizing that Cecily feels the same, smells the same, reacts the same, has the exact same body as Samantha. I did not buy this for a second. Samantha was the love of Gabriel's freakin' life and the night of lovemaking they shared was seared into every pore of his body (according to the author), so either his penis has the memory of a goldfish or Teresa Medeiros needed a PLOT DEVICE.

#3: Gabriel wakes up from his little tryst and goes on with his life - his plans unchanged. Nothing about the novel's conclusion is in any way determined or affected by this scene. This is what really killed me and why this dragged the book down to such an extent for me - because not only was this scene implausible and cheap, but it couldn't even provide a reason for why it needed to be in the novel in the first place.

Okay, so in hindsight I can sort of determine its purpose - Gabriel is essentially in love with a woman who doesn't exist, so I suppose the author had to prove to us that the prospect of Cecily naked doesn't make Gabriel's genitals try to crawl back up into his abdominal cavity, in order to make it more realistic that he willingly welcomes Cecily back with open arms once he discovers the truth.

At least, I think that's what that scene was for. Either way, it failed, and that's a shame, because the rest of this book was pretty interesting until this weird little sex scene came and made both protagonists look really sleazy. I honestly think if I ripped the pages out and just read the book without that scene, I'd enjoy the book a lot more and lose nothing of the story.

Monday, April 13, 2009

"After the Kiss," by Suzanne Enoch

Alternate Title: To Catch a Thief

The Chick:
Lady Isabel "Tibby" Chalsey. When a thief breaks into her house and steals a kiss, she retaliates by lifting his mask - and catching a glimpse of his face, soon discovers that the infamous Mayfair Marauder is none other than Sullivan Waring, a well-respected horse breeder. She decides a little blackmail might be just the thing to spice up her everyday life, and having a devilishly handsome horse breeder at her beck and call has its advantages.
The Rub: She's deathly afraid of horses. Also, Sullivan's not one who responds well to coercion.
Dream Casting: A younger Sarah Michelle Gellar, circa Buffy, second season.

The Dude: Sullivan Waring. The bastard son of the Marquis of Dunston, Sullivan came back from the war to discover the father who never acknowledged him stole and distributed the paintings his mother made that were rightfully his. Donning a black mask, he vows to recover his rightful property by fair means or foul - until he gets caught by a willful chit used to getting her own way.
The Rub: The same willful chit ends up stealing his heart faster than he stole his mother's painting from her wall - but he knows that as a bastard commoner, he has no chance with her.
Dream Casting: Guy Pearce.

The Plot:

Sullivan: For my first trick, I'm going to make this painting disappear!

Isabel: !

Sullivan: CRAP. Um, what do you want to keep quiet?

Isabel: What don't I want?

Sullivan: Oh, double crap.

Isabel: If you don't do exactly as I say, I'll tattle on you!

Sullivan: But if I'm taken to jail, who'll be there to make out with you?

Isabel: Hmmm, we seem to be at an impass.

Sullivan and Isabel: *smoochies*

Polite Society: !

Sullivan: I can't be responsible for ruining your position in Society. I have to leave.

Sullivan's Father: Oh, fine, I acknowledge you!

Sullivan: Scratch that, then, Isabel. Marry me?

Isabel: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Bored Society Darling

1 Bastard Who is Still a Nice Gentleman

1 Gentleman Who is Kind of a Bastard

1 Very Bad Father

A Dozen Stolen Paintings

1 Interclass Romance

1 Fear of Horses

The Word: After the Kiss was an interesting novel to read, particularly right after Jo Beverley's Hazard, because even though the protagonists of both novels appear similar on the surface, and even though this novel's Isabel acts in a way I professed to hate in my last review, I found this novel a much better read. Allow me to elaborate.

In After the Kiss, our hero Sullivan Waring meets Lady Isabel Chalsey while he's stealing a painting from her house. He successfully distracts her with a kiss before he makes his getaway, but discovers she removed his mask and got a good look at his face first. When she meets him the next day at a horse dealership and puts two and two together, she decides to blackmail him into dancing attendance on her in return for keeping his secret (so long as he refrains from robbing other houses).

Now, in Jo Beverley's Hazard, I expressed a distaste for Anne, the heroine, because she frequently sets out to control and manipulate other people's lives, and how the novel tries to playfully explain this away by reminding us that she's a sheltered and pampered aristocrat. So, how come I hated Anne but actually enjoyed reading about Isabel? Well, there are several reasons.

The first reason is that Isabel is aware of her spoiled nature and is quite honest about herself and what she is doing. She's not one of Society's outsiders by any means, nor is she one of those anachronistic female characters who run about in breeches. She loves dresses and shopping and balls and parties, and her pampered upbringing removes her just enough from reality so that she thinks blackmailing a handsome thief will provide her with a month or two of excitement with the added karmic bonus of keeping a robber off the streets.

However, as she needs a reason to keep Sullivan at her beck and call, she hastily buys an unbroken horse from him and hires him to train it for riding, overlooking the insignificant detail that she's terrified of horses and has been since she was eight. This fear adds a realistic layer to her character as well as an interesting aspect to her relationship with Sullivan.

Sullivan arrives on Isabel's doorstep with her new horse and every intention of convincing/threatening her to keep her silence, but her autocratic and commanding behaviour is undermined by her very real and obvious fear of the animal. As irritated as Sullivan is to be under the thumb of some spoiled brat with a bad boy complex, he instinctively wants to help her with her phobia and teach her to to love horses as much as he does.

I really just loved Isabel because she's an incredibly open and honest character, with herself and with others. Yes, she loves spending money, yes, she loves excitement and drama, yes, she thinks thieves are dashing rogues - who wouldn't? She's perfectly happy with who she is and has no qualms against saying what she likes, doing as she pleases, and going after what she wants. At the same time, she cannot hide her feelings or intentions very well - which is why the unsettling presence of her new horse, Zephyr, prevents her from achieving the perfect upper hand with Sullivan whenever they meet.

Another reason I enjoyed this interclass romance more than Hazard is because the hero of this novel actually has a part to play - a big difference from Hazard's Race, who spends more time as the object of affection than a participating character.

Sullivan's thievery is actually a clever sort of revenge against the aristocracy who shunned and cheated him. His aristocratic father, the Marquis of Dunston, is a pompous hypocrite who never acknowledged his bastard son because it would jeopardize his public image as a bastion of propriety. Sullivan took it all in stride until the day he returned from the war to find out his mother's paintings has been pilfered by Dunston and distributed to his friends and supporters.

Sullivan knew that any legal proceedings he attempted to push through a system biased towards the peerage would come to naught, so he decided to steal the paintings back one by one, knowing Dunston could never come forward and identify Sullivan as the thief without revealing their unsavoury connection and losing the respect of society.

Because Sullivan's character receives an equal amount of "screen time" ("page time"?), the development of the romance in After the Kiss is more equally balanced than that in Hazard, in which Race, having about half the number of scenes that Anne does (if that), has to scramble to keep up with Anne's emotional development in a way that appeared, dare I say it, hapHazard.

With After the Kiss, both characters have established traits and personalities that lend depth and significance to the development of their love. An excellent aspect of their budding romance is the realistic difficulties involved - it isn't all rainbows and puppies. Rather, it's a double-edged sword for both of them - their relationship forces some painful situations and realizations on both of them, and it's up to them to decide whether the dazzling highs of their romance are worth the surprising lows.

Isabel is truly a Society miss - she's grown up with that life and knows nothing outside of it, nor wants to. She's satisfied and entertained by balls and gossip and gowns. But her association with Sullivan, a commoner, ostracizes her from the only world she's ever known. Formerly her Society's cosseted, glittering star, in her descent from favour she discovers the darker, restricting, and pompous underbelly of her particular ninth cloud and can't decide whether she'd rather come down from the clouds entirely or work her way back up to where things are bright and sparkly again. As a society creature, what kind of person can she be without a society to support her?

With Sullivan, the pain is even more internal. He's also taught himself to be completely satisfied with his life - he has a thriving business he enjoys doing, with lots of opportunities to thumb his nose at the upper crust by exercising his owner's right to sell only to those whom he deems worthy. His experience with his Marquis father instilled a deep-seated hatred and disdain of aristocrats that permits only a few exceptions. However, his growing love for Isabel in turn undermines his self-confidence in his lifestyle. He's taught himself not to hate that aspect about himself which he can't change (his bastardy), but as he recognizes Isabel as a Society creature his contempt turns inward upon himself for his inability to provide her with the life to which she is accustomed. The novel's plot doesn't just shrug off the problem of Sullivan's status, something I appreciated. Both characters have to come to grips with what they have to give up, and whether it's worth it.

If there were a few flaws, it would be that the way things turn out for Isabel and Sullivan seemed a shade on the easy side. Goodness knows, I like a satisfying HEA as much as the next romance girl, but I prefer it when the ending feels earned, with the characters scraping out their own happiness. By the end, it seemed like a great deal of good luck happened to everyone at once. Isabel's reputation mends with magical painlessness, I thought - the same with Sullivan's career. As well, Sullivan's half-brother, the legitimate Viscount Oliver Sullivan, seemed like a jackass just for the sake of being a jackass, when his side of the story is (relatively) sympathetic from a certain standpoint. As well, Isabel can be a bit too dominating in the relationship - there were a few too many "things have to go my way, because I want it" moments where Sullivan should have had an equal say.

Other than that, though, the novel was a true pleasure to read, with some genuinely funny scenes and dialogue. Suzanne Enoch provides a cunning parallel for the romance in the training of Zephyr, Isabel's horse. Isabel only buys the animal to give herself an excuse to have Sullivan under her control, and never plans to ride it. So, initially, the training is slow - Sullivan simply walks the horse and speaks to it as Isabel watches. But as she comes to enjoy Sullivan's company, the only way she can justify his continued presence in her life is if she faces her terror, and gradually comes to be more comfortable around horses. While she did perfectly well without riding horses in her life, once she finally gets up in the saddle she discovers the world from a new perspective that makes her previous life pale in comparison.

The same occurs in the romance - both characters are (or believe they are, at any rate) perfectly happy living their regular lives, never knowing what they're missing. Only by slowly growing accustomed to each other and facing their personal fears do they have a chance to achieve a world they never new existed.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

"Hazard," by Jo Beverley

Alternate Title: Blathered.

The Chick: Lady Anne Peckworth. Despite being wealthy and the daughter of a duke, Anne never received too many offers, thanks to her shyness and her lame foot. The two men who did court her both ended up jilting her. However, to appease her haughty mother into letting her younger sister marry her less-than-suitable beau, Anne's willing to get back on the marriage horse.
The Rub: She knows her mother will never be satisfied with anyone who doesn't possess a title, but she can't get her brother's handsome companion Racecombe de Vere out of her mind.
Dream Casting: Romola Garai.

The Dude: Racecombe "Race" de Vere, a.k.a. Racecombe Ramsbottom, a.k.a. Racecombe Racecombe (yes, I'm serious). As personal secretary to the last dude who jilted Anne, he's been sent to her estate to see if he can't improve her circumstances (thereby easing his friend's guilt over marrying another woman).
The Rub: He succeeds in teasing Anne out of her shell, but he succeeds a little too well and ends up falling for her himself. However, as a titleless, fortuneless, and most likely illegitimate gentleman - he's not even within busing distance of her league.
Dream Casting: Kings' Christopher Egan.

The Plot:

Anne: Oh well, jilted again!

Racecombe: Hey there, pretty lady!

Anne: Oh! He's so shocking and debonair and outside of society's rules! How inexplicably attractive!

Racecombe: My job here is done. Exit stage left!

Anne: Oh! All of these handsome titled gentlemen are paying attention to me! I should marry one of them! But I don't want to. But I do! But I like Race! But I shouldn't!

Alderton, Boring Suitor: Marry me?

Anne: Sure.

Ralstone, Rakish Suitor: Marry me?

Anne: I don't see why not. Wait, no - argh! It's too much pressure! I know - I'll run off and do something ridiculously stupid for no good reason! That'll solve my problem!

Race: Anne! What the hell are you doing limping unescorted down a dark road with only a cloak and a staff?

Anne: Works every time. Hey, Race - MenWhoWantToMarryMeButDon'tMindBeingTrickedIntoItSayWhat?

Race: What?

Race and Anne: *married*

Anne: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Crippled, Sheltered Heroine Out of the Hero's League

1 Dashing Lowerclass Hero

1 Gimp Foot

2 Romantically Lacklustre Rivals

2 Marriage Proposals Obtained Through Conventional Means

1 Marriage Proposal Obtained Through TRICKERY

1 Fake Highwayman

The Word: This is my first Jo Beverley novel, but it's not going to make me rush out to buy more of her books. From what I've read and heard of her, she has a truly staggering backlist, so maybe I picked up a dud. But really, I'm not planning on trying her again anytime soon. More than anything, this novel taught me: be careful what you wish for.

Let's start at the beginning, shall we? Lady Anne Peckworth has just been jilted for the second time when her last suitor abruptly marries another woman (apparently the events of the novel The Dragon's Bride). She wasn't too romantically attached to him so she's more disappointed with herself than heartbroken. She's a bit reclusive and shy, and her family treats her with kid gloves because of her twisted foot that gives her a distinctive limp and prevents her from participating in running and dancing. She seems destined for spinsterhood, and has no real plans for her future.

That is, until her brother brings home a companion, Racecombe de Vere, an intriguing man who immediately sets out to tease, shock, and provoke her with all sorts of outrageous comments and ideas. Unbeknownst to her, Race has been asked to do precisely that. Seems her jilter is a rather nice fellow and feels terrible for leaving her in the lurch, so he asked Race (who has a thing for fixer-uppers) to see what he could do to improve Anne's situation.

Race succeeds, although he nearly ends up compromising himself with Anne in the process. Knowing he's miles below Anne on the social ladder, he beats a hastry retreat. Thanks to her encounter with Race, Anne feels empowered enough to put herself back on the Marriage Mart - really on the Marriage Mart this time. During their very brief time together, Race convinced Anne (rightfully so) that she used her twisted foot as an excuse to fade into the wallpaper, and that some actual, you know, effort might be needed to attract more than a handful of suitors. As an added impetus, her younger sister Marianne has fallen in love with a man slightly less than suitable and Anne realizes an advantageous marriage on her part might make her parents loosen up enough to permit Marianne's relationship.

This novel starts out quite well, with what appear to be unconventional protagonists. Anne is a rather ordinary-looking girl, not exceptionally pretty, while at the same time, her crippled foot is written as only one facet of her character, and isn't blown up into a Huge Burninating Self-Image Issue (like in The Kiss and Again the Magic), which I appreciated. Similarly, Race is miles away from the typical romance hero - short, slender, blond, and under the age of twenty-five, he stands out immediately in the mind's eye of this reader, who is over-acquainted with the Standard Historical Hero, who is nearly always comfortably thirty, dark as a crow, and built like a stevedore. Far from being an overpowering Alpha Male, he's a mischief-maker, a joker - Anne repeatedly compares him to a faery and it fits.

However, once Race leaves and Anne prepares to enter the Marriage Mart, the action slows to a bare trickle. For the next hundred and fifty pages (give or take), we read about the dazzlingly interesting adventures of - how miserable Anne is. I kid you not - Anne goes to balls. Anne attracts a number of suitors and subsequently disregards them as boring or ill-suited. Anne goes to the theatre. Anne talks with her Smug Married friends and relatives and mutters confusedly about what love really means.

But in all these situations what happens in the outside world (which isn't that significant or exciting to begin with) takes a backseat to Anne's endless, obsessive, indecisive whining. Oh, why isn't Race here? Why can't all these titled, rich men be like Race? Why must I love Race? Damn that sexy Race for making me love Race! Why couldn't my family accept Race? Race Race Race! On and on and on. It certainly doesn't help that the vast majority of this novel is told from Anne's perspective and for the most part, Race is absent.

Now, nothing in this book during these hundred and fifty pages was particularly poorly written. Even though Anne's head is full of outlandish and unrealistic thoughts, she's perfectly aware of their outlandishness and outwardly acts in a proper and expected fashion. Most of the characters in the novel are reasonable and have understandable thought processes. Really, the least believable aspect of the plot is Anne's obsession with a man she knew for all of twelve hours, and even then the cheeky opening scenes between Anne and Race explain this at least partially.

But the fact remains that for a hundred and fifty pages nothing happens. Not outwardly, nor emotionally, nor mentally. Really, Jo Beverley could have made Hazard into a novella and compressed the first two thirds of the book into a few chapters and lost none of the impact. It got to the point where I was wishing something, anything, would happen - just something that was other than the Angsty Anne Show with Occasional Guest Star Race.

Well, like I said at the beginning of this review: be careful what you wish for.

Something does happen, finally - Race, with the greatest reluctance, drifts slowly back into Anne's circle, which startles Anne out of her funk and reveals more of her true character.

Unfortunately, her true character turns out to be selfish, spoiled, manipulative, Too Stupid To Live (TSTL) and deceitful. Her actions after Race's reappearance change her from a character I felt slightly sympathetic towards, to a heroine I actively hated. Upping the ante in her husband hunting game (thinking it'll be easier to control her fluttery feelings for Race once she's securely nailed down), she narrows her choices to two (a Boring Suitor and a Rakish Suitor). She loves neither of them and she knows it, but deliberates at appallingly callous length on which of them will be the easiest to manipulate and control to her whim.

Again, nothing much happens, but we, the reader, are treated to Anne's most intimate thoughts and her choices for husband are on par with choosing a puppy - she expects her spouse to do exactly as she says, when she says it, and she's seemingly oblivious to the fact that her suitors are living, breathing human beings who have thoughts and wants of their own, a right to contribute to their own marriage, and feelings that can be (and are) hurt by her thoughtless and spoiled usage of them. And this is giving the historical setting of the novel some extreme leeway by accepting that Anne believes she has any control in a nineteenth century marriage! In this last third of the novel, Anne goes from possessing simple ignorance of social situations to a disturbing apathy towards the social needs of others.

Her self-absorption further complicates things when both suitors end up proposing to her, and she accepts both of them - heedless of the fact that she'll have to break it off (and severely hurt) at least one of them. She makes a bid for reader sympathy by whining that neither of them are really what she wants (she's a Race-ist through and through), but it doesn't excuse the fact that she is manipulating and emotionally toying with two men, and essentially doing to them EXACTLY what her last two suitors did to her.

But no! Things get worse! Eventually, Racecombe gets wind of some of Anne's attachments and decides to warn her that her Rakish Suitor is not the wisest choice. Anne gets irrationally angry at Race for offering advice, resentfully thinking he's trying to control her life, and decides to elope with Rakish Suitor to spite him. Yes. That's a perfectly reasonable decision. All marriages should be entered into out of spite.

Anne soon trips and falls into the pit of TSTL (Too Stupid To Live). While eloping with her Rakish Suitor, she discovers (surprise!) they're ill-suited for each other after sharing a single dinner conversation and finding they disagree on certain points. Again, Anne apparently thinks that husbands check their personalities and free will at the door when they carry their brides into the marital chamber. Desperate to save her reputation, she (I'm totally not kidding) flees their hotel and down a country road in the middle of the night, alone, on foot, unarmed and limping. But at least she won't be ruined, she thinks, it'll be Rakish Suitor's word against hers - until she runs into Race (understandably dumbfounded by her cinderblock-like powers of observation) who informs her she left her monogrammed luggage in the Rakish Suitor's hotel room along with a Dear John letter written on her personalized stationary. Did she land on her head getting out of bed that morning?

Thinking back on it, I would have rather stuck to the snail-like pace of the first two-thirds of this novel - while poorly paced, at least the characters behaved in a realistic and understandable fashion so that the narrative proceeded from their actions. In the last third of this novel, the pathetic attempts at action and intrigue are so contrived that it severely compromises the integrity of the characters - requiring them to make uncharacteristically idiotic or immoral decisions in order to move the plot forward.

The worst example of this, and the one that made me give up on Anne as a realistic character, comes when Anne, rescued by Race, finally decides she doesn't give a rat's ass about society's conventions and will have Race, by hook or by crook. Race is too honourable and too aware of Anne's social station to make a move, so when one of her personal friends shows up out of the fucking blue dressed as a famous French highwayman (don't ask), she decides to trick Race into thinking they're really being robbed and kidnapped so that she has an excuse to be locked in a room with him, compromising herself and forcing Race to marry her. This pretty much destroyed any emotional investment I had reading this romance because it's such a blatantly underhanded and dishonest move and I didn't want to support a romance story that condones tricking people into relationships.

The novel itself tries to put a light-hearted spin on it - playing on Anne's spoiled nature as the daughter of a duke who is used to getting whatever she wants. Anne's POV takes up 80% of this novel, and I can see how her actions can be construed as finally taking power and controlling her own future, her own choice of husband. Yeah, girl power! Whoo hoo! Isn't this all, like, feminist and stuff? The novel's cover, even, claims this by calling itself "The Most Daring Romance of the Year." In my opinion, no - what is the novel telling us when the woman who has all this unprecedented power can't help but abuse it at every turn to further her own ends, oblivious to the lives of others?

You may have noticed I haven't discussed Race with much depth. That, truth be told, is because I suspect he's not that deep a character to begin with. Hazard is a novel about Anne that features Race rather than a romance between the two. Race is phyically absent for the majority of scenes and when he is present, it's only rarely from his own POV. His main problem is "I love Anne, but she's too high for me, so I just have to suck it up and be a man." He's rather honourable in that way, but as character motivations go he's a one-trick pony.

All that being said, I have to reiterate that Hazard might have worked better as a novella than a full novel. Race isn't that multilayered a character and so much of Anne's development is redundant (a hundred and fifty pages of bitching about how the world isn't fair!) - and that's only a possible solution to the pacing. There's little I can suggest for the trainwreck of the novel's final stretch.