I can’t explain why I am sometimes compelled to go into the scary place that is my garage and root around in boxes in search of a specific book. It’s like a chemical reaction that I can’t control — I wake up and nothing will make me happy except for that one specific book (generally that one specific book is also located in a box under a zillion other boxes, meaning I work up a sweat before I get to read. Beats hitting the gym.).
A couple of weekends ago, I woke up with a powerful need to read Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Dream A Little Dream. It turns out that I get this urge about once a year, give or take. I love this book. I love this book despite the fact that I spend a good three quarters of my reading time in tears. Please do not tell anyone about that — I do not cry easily (what is the old saying? There’s no crying in reviewing?). But this book does me in. Every. Single. Time.
For all the criticisms that can be leveled at romance – and there are many – it’s easy to lose sight of what a fostering environment romance can be for young writers. Devoted readers of the genre are often quite forgiving of green and otherwise unprofessional debut efforts. The sense is, as long as there is promise in a young author, the rough spots can be forgiven for what is to come. Sometimes there is a tremendous payoff for that patience (Jude Deveraux comes to mind for having penned a spectacularly faulty first novel and then improved as her career grew), and other times, nothing comes from the buried promise of a first book. It is then a treat for those nurturing readers when a debut comes along for which allowances need not be made. In the rarest of rarified debut novel air, are first books that do not read like first books at all, but more like the product of an author in her prime. And, that is exactly how Jana DeLeon’s debut Rumble on the Bayou plays out: like it’s the product of a professional.
Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard is a deceptive book. On first glance it looks like one of a million Gossip Girl followers with its shiny, attractive girls on the cover and its high society setting. When I picked it up during a lunch break at work, I was expecting something light and commercialistic, what I found instead was a Twin Peaks-esque story line where instead of trying to figure out who killed Laura Palmer I was left wondering if Alison DiLaurentis was even dead.
As I confessed in a previous review, there is a certain element of randomness when it comes my book selection process. I judge books by covers, by clever synopses, by really bad synopses, and, sometimes, by guilt. For example, let’s say someone sends me a book for review and I haven’t gotten to it, then I get an email reminding me that this book is in my possession, and guilt nudges me, saying “You should at least open the package.”
Rest assured that this latter scenario rarely happens. But a week or so ago, I received a friendly reminder from a publicist suggesting that I should have received, read, and loved Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Raven Prince. Whoa there, I thought, you think I get around to this stuff in a day or two? You don’t know me.
And of course I’m also thinking that I’m going to show this publicist. You get all “you’re gonna love this book” with me, and I’ll show you. Take that and that and that.
Romance has long been accused of suffering from a general sameness: same characters, same plots, same endings. That is an arguable point, but looking at the new release table laden with vampires, werewolves, and erotica, and then more vampires, werewolves, and erotica, readers might think the effort put into the argument is wasted. The market is rather striking for its current homogeneity, so much so that titles offering the least bit of variation stand out. Jodi Thomas’ new release, Texas Rain, is immediately intriguing for that very reason. The story doesn’t have a paranormal element. Nor does it feature characters who define themselves by the quick, easy sex they have, or the quick, easy sex they want to have. In fact, there isn’t any sex, to speak of, in the book. Texas Rain is a pre-Civil War-set-Western and different enough in both approach and content that, at first blush, it seems like a revolution might be brewing on the new release table.
wd: Since PBR came into being, the most debated books have been Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation. Apples and oranges for certain and a testament to our divergent tastes. Unlike the Crusie title – for which Kassia and I were eager, but for too long lacked the time to discuss – the talk about Outlander wasn’t of the sort that implies fervor. The deliberations went a bit like this:
Me: Let’s do Outlander.
Anonymous fellow reviewer: I’d rather be staked out on ant hill and covered in honey.
Repeat ad infinitum with the occasional substitution of torture method and you get the idea. While it’s been frustrating to want to talk about a book and to not find that desire reciprocated, the polarization that Outlander has caused here is endemic of the schism it has created in the larger romance community. There are those who passionately love Jamie and Claire’s story, and those who hate the very idea of the books. I have to admit that I am addicted to the Outlander series…while I’m reading it. When I’m not reading, I ardently wish I’d never picked the books up. The never-ending-series that it has become weighs me down and dampens my excitement for the story.
(lf: Let me horn in here to say that as a fervent fan of Ms. Gabaldon’s, I too look askance at each new entry in the series. I’ve had Breath of Snow and Ashes on my shelf since it was published last year, working up the gumption to take a running leap at it. The Outlander books demand a huge investment in time and emotional energy and are not for the weak.)
Nonetheless, when Lorna joined us I knew the discussion that I was so impatient for would soon be underway. Years ago, the first conversation Lorna and I had – beyond, hello nice to meet you – was about the Outlander series. We were united in our general passion for all things Gabaldon while being divided by our thoughts on specific points. That seemed a lovely place to begin a discussion, and it was with great enthusiasm that Lorna and I launched into Outlander. We quickly found that our conversation about Jamie and Claire and all that happens to them, to be completely overwhelming. It’s nearly impossible to discuss Outlander while leaving all those other books and continuing storylines untouched; but we managed to, mostly. What follows is our very long chat about Outlander.
Highlander in Her Bed is the sort of romance novel that, by intention, strains credibility at every turn. The principles are an American woman, Mara McDougall – who, despite having no Scottish relations, inherits a Scottish castle – and a seven-hundred-year-old Scottish ghost, Alex Douglas. The conflict is obvious and immediate, as is the catch: A ghost, unlike his undead brethren, lacks a corporeal body, and something, most likely something implausible, needs to happen to ensure the hero and heroine jaunt off to their happily ever after. A bit of poof or smoke and mirrors needs to be employed so that the ghost is alive again or, at least, just solid flesh. One of the most exciting aspects of romance is the willingness of the authors who work within the genre to take on a premise that doesn’t even hope to be believable. Every once in a while there is a rather spectacular payoff for the risk. Usually such success is the result of grounding an otherwise unbelievable premise –The Black Dagger Brotherhood comes to mind – but here, with Highlander in Her Bed, Allie MacKay didn’t take that route, instead she went for the might-as-well-hemorrhage-believability-at-every-turn path and the result is only spectacular in the train wreck sense of the word.
I’m going to confess yet another reviewer secret: it’s the medium books that are the hardest. Loving a book is easy. Hating a book is pure reviewer joy. Enjoying a book for all the wrong reasons is a delight. But the lukewarm books are killer.
This is my second go-round with Rachel Gibson’s True Confessions, and it’s almost weird that my second reaction largely mirrors the first: I had a good time, but not enough to remember it a year from now. Which is a shame, because this time, as I read, I kept thinking, “Man, she’s a good writer.”
Category romance is the literary equivalent of tract housing. The units line up, one after the other, in perfectly matched symmetry, completely known and quantifiable. And, certainly, there is no reason to fault category for succeeding in doing exactly what it sets out to do: offering the reader the comfort of sameness and the certainty that what is expected will be delivered upon. But, all too often the trade off that comes with this familiarity is a lack of originality. It would seem the plots points of category romances have the same limitations as three bedroom two bath ranch homes in that there are only so many ways the principle elements come together and remain true to the original intention. In both cases what’s so easily jettisoned to form is creativity.