Wendy: Bittersweet, freezer burn, front end…Christian romance? Is it another oxymoron or can a genre largely geared to titillate work god into the relationship between hero and heroine? Inspirational romance has been around too long to question the legitimacy of its existence or perhaps even ponder the necessity of mixing faith into a genre famed for its carnality. But what appeal can Inspirationals have for a readership not interested in finding a morality play intertwined with their foreplay? If Fair Warning, the latest offering from the husband and wife writing team known as Hannah Alexander, is any indication, not a lot.
Of all the interesting paradoxes that exist in genre romance the oddest, or most absurd perhaps, is that paranormal romance has taken the creatures of the night and turned them into heroes and heroines. To be fair, the vampires, witches, and werewolves that once played the roles of monsters have undergone an image makeover that left them not so monstrous, but rather, toothless, without much power, and neutered. It’s understandable really: a hero viewing a heroine as a tasty meal—and not the sexual kind—isn’t too sexy, or a good basis for a love story. Unfortunately, some important elements of these other beings have been lost to the image overhaul. For example, what’s exciting and compelling about werewolves is the classic man against beast conflict which leads so eloquently to man against man conflict. But, in the toothless version that is so often presented in paranormal romance, werewolves are shape-shifters not enslaved to the full moon, not possessed to bite and kill people, and therefore not in danger of being killed themselves. Not only does this watered down version lack inherent conflict, by taking away the gruesome, helpless aspect of lycanthropy the compelling reason for it to exist in a story is also removed. What’s left is a man or woman who can shift into an animal. What is the purpose of that?
**Today we are deviating from our usual current release schedule to review our January contest winner’s choice, Every Which Way But Dead.
Romance, for all the suppleness it possesses as a genre, rigidly adheres to certain axioms: the heroine must be likeable (the most limited definition possible for this), the story must center on the emerging romance, the ending must satisfy. These elements, while enjoyable time and again, do limit possibilities. They are the creative equivalent of a coloring book versus the wide open space of a blank canvas. This is never more apparent than when another genre of fiction plays around with the elements most traditionally associated with romance, but doesn’t then bother with those axioms. Such is the case with Kim Harrison’s three-books-and-counting Rachel Morgan series. Like any good romance, Harrison’s story is tightly focused on the heroine, but with the freedom found outside the genre—in this case fantasy—Harrison doesn’t waste a single word on making Rachel saccharin likeable, when gritty and downright dirty make for better conflict. There is a romance with a male character who is just that, a male character, not a hero. It’s long in coming and spicy while only accounting for a portion of the overall story, and it isn’t sugar-coated with hard to ground concepts like destiny. The romance never feels buried behind other plot points, but rather blends nicely with the underlying theme of Rachel learning not everything is black and white. Why then do so few offerings in genre romance accomplish all that?
I am a heretical Regency fan. I don’t care much about historical accuracy. Don’t worry about lines of succession. And, frankly, I’m not all that much fascinated by muslin, sprigged or not. When it comes to reading Regency, I’m all about the style of the story.
Michelle Martin’s The Adventurers, published in 1996 (and sadly out-of-print – go forth, pay lots of money on the black market for this one), is one of my favorite Regencies. Let’s call it my comfort Regency. Oh sure, I adore all of Martin’s work, but The Adventurers is the one I pick up first, second, and last.
HelenKay: Romance and serial killers – two topics one might not view as being compatible. Books about one generally don’t sit on the shelves with books about the other. Sure, some authors write romantic suspense. Some write it very well. In most, the suspense centers around a crime or a murder. Some even touch on multiple murders. In Are You Afraid? you get a creepy serial killer. Scary and suspenseful – it’s all in here. So is a smart and realistic romance between two wounded and lonely people.
HelenKay: Just as there are old standards in romance songs – think Sinatra – there are some old standards in romance novels. These are the patterns and situations authors use over and over to push the romance where they want it to go. The unfaithful fiancee who drives the heroine into the arms of the hero. The marriage of convenience. The domineering family that rules the adult child’s life through a series of threats and enticements. The hero who loves dogs. Actually, that last one might be okay in any book.
Sometimes these elements, alone or together in some combination, work. The reader jumps on for the ride, just happy to be on board. Other times, the reader shuts down from the repetitive scenarios. It’s a fine line, one usually separated by a strong author voice, writing that shines and characters that feel full despite the recycled storyline. When the author falls on the right side of the line, the been-there-done-that feeling is forgiven. When, as here, those old romance standards combine with a too-good hero, a weak heroine and an odd run to Vegas, those been-there-done-that feelings become flaws and the forgiving doesn’t come easy.
[HelenKay] One of our regular features here at PBR is the author favorite spot. One of us picks an all-time favorite and tortures the others by insisting the book get a special review. Jayne Ann Krentz is my all-time favorite romance author. This likely is a result of her being the first romance author I ever read, but my opinion of her has not wavered over time. As my romance novel preferences change (and they have), my appreciation of her work has not diminished. Now, for reasons that are not clear, Wendy does not appreciate Krentz with an appropriate level of enthusiasm. Actually, she doesn’t have any enthusiasm for Krentz. Rather than force her to read the book and thereby, potentially, allow this horrific flaw in Wendy’s reading taste to destroy our friendship and reviewing arrangement, I turned to Kassia for assistance. Kassia, being the witty and clever soul she is, shares my admiration for all things Krentz.
The real story is that Wendy, having done a host of solo reviews during my deadline-inflicted absence, is taking a much deserved rest. Unfortunately her anti-Krentz mindset is also true.
For those who don’t know, Perfect Partners follows the story of Letty Thornquist, a librarian at a small mid-western college. Letty inherits a sporting goods company (Thornquist Gear) upon the death of the owner who is also her uncle. Still stinging from her fiancee’s infidelity, Letty sees the inheritance as her ticket to a new life and relocates to Washington to run the company. The CEO of Thornquist Gear, Joel Blackstone, has other ideas. He dreads the arrival of the intellectual and plans to move her out of the way. He’s been using the company to inflict a little revenge on his hometown and the influential businessman who ruined Joel’s family. Joel needs Letty to stay out of the way, and out of his company, until the vengeance is complete.
Then Joel meets Letty, and his priorities change.
HelenKay: From the title of this book you may expect a swashbuckling alpha hero – sort of a romance read of old where the strong handsome man kidnaps the desperate heroine and through a serious of arguments and fights love blooms. In these other tales, financial interests or vengeance motivates the hero’s actions. Love isn’t the goal; it’s the result.
In some ways that throwback description fits Marshall’s Captain Sinister’s Lady but not really. Morgan Roberts does capture Amanda Stephenson and does decide he wants to keep her. Those characteristics remain. The difference here is in the why and how. The problem here is in the when. One of the drawbacks of the book is that the majority of the romance action takes place in in the first third of the book, leaving the last 200 pages with little conflict or driving force.
It’s a particular curiosity that a genre of fiction as large and as encompassing as romance continues to grow, not with experimental or speculative creativity, but by continually recreating and repackaging and retreading the same product. Romance readers like their formulas and constructs and that’s fine. But, when the same story is told over and over again it should become more polished with each telling, more fine tuned every time it’s recited. What it can’t do is fail on the most elementary level. Fiction, for all its many elastic incarnations, must rigidly hold to certain fundamentals: stories must have beginnings, middles, and ends, setting and character must be established, conflict must build and action must rise, then fall. Fiction that doesn’t ascend to this most basic level—especially in a genre that takes so few risks—fails.
The romance world loves a great series. Heck, I love a great series, but like so many readers, I am fickle. So few series compel me to continue to the very end (a certain man named Miles Vorkosigan excepted, and even he has his moments). The problem with all series, great and small, is that not every character should be resolved. Some should remain the mist.
In Jo Beverley’s The Rogue’s Return, Simon St. Bride, an English aristocrat in Regency Canada, is preparing to return home with evidence of thievery in the Indian Affairs group. His temper leads to a forced duel with the man he’s fingered; his actions lead to a forced marriage with Jane (Jancy) Otterburn, a recent immigrant from England. Only this Jane Otterburn isn’t the Jane Otterburn he thinks she is – rather than a poor relation of aristocracy, he ends up with the bastard daughter of a respected family.