These days, good contemporaries are hard to find as bookstore shelves are laden with paranormal and erotic romances. Want a good romance with vampires? Sure, throw a rock and a dozen of those will be hit. Craving a good romance that’s a cover-to-cover sex romp? Good is highly subjective with those, but at least there are lots to choose from. But a good love story set in the present, in this world, between humans who do more talking than groping? Not so much. In this era of sharp teeth and high octant erogenous zones, stories about men and women falling in love that are simply stories of men and women falling in love are few and far between.
There’s little room for surprise in the clockwork art that is genre fiction. What is expected of the formula is, after all, the expected. But fiction, good fiction, needs the element of surprise, some bit of plot or character or device that isn’t as expected. It is in the unanticipated, the unforeseen, the unpredicted that talent shines brightest and readers are given something memorable. Debut author Colleen Gleason has neatly sidestepped the issue of triteness with The Rest Falls Away, by stretching and straddling genre boundaries. The result is a story that isn’t strictly a romance or strictly a paranormal or strictly a Regency. It’s a romance without a central love story, a paranormal that never looses sight of the fact that vampires are monsters, and a Regency whose heroine has something besides the ton on her mind. All that makes for a read that surprises.
Shayla Black’s Wicked Ties is the most baffling of books, the kind that manages to be greater than the sum of its parts. It isn’t alone in that. There are plenty of books that should be tossed aside and disliked for whatever reason. And yet they aren’t. They can’t be, because somehow they rise above plot issues, or character issues or any number of craft foibles to be compelling and compulsively readable. Likeable…in spite of themselves. Wicked Ties does all that: gives the reader a plot that begs to have its Swiss cheese holes exposed; characters that are archetypes; and a general feeling that the only way to improve the situation is to throw the book against the nearest wall. Any yet throwing the book isn’t an option because valuable reading time would be lost. And for whatever else Wicked Ties is, it’s a book that, once started, demands to be read.
Jackie Kessler’s debut, Hell’s Belles purports to be a paranormal romance. The cover, a red-saturated shot of the city with a shapely leg taking center stage, looks like so many other paranormals on the shelves that the images could be taken as shorthand for the presumed story within: striking and strong young heroine overcomes evil with sass and luck when not tumbling the strapping young stud who turns out to be The One. Even the jacket copy points to romance, something light and frothy, something easy to read, quick to be consumed and then forgotten. But that’s not what Hell’s Belles is. Paranormal romance doesn’t fit this book nearly as well as fantasy does and readers eager for a by-the-numbers romance won’t find that here.
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Jack Frost nipping at your nose make the holidays, and curling up with a good book, all the better. The same goes for romances; there is always the hope that holiday themed romances will deliver a seasonal magic and the burden of disbelief will be lessen in the season of miracles. Or, at least, that’s the wish. In the case of Sugar and Spice – an anthology featuring Christmas themed romances from Fern Michaels, Beverly Barton, Joanne Fluke and Shirley Jump – that’s not entirely the case.
Eloisa James is a fine writer, a sharp crafter of words, and a good storyteller. Her latest release, the fourth and final installment of the Essex sisters’ stories, Pleasure for Pleasure, is a first-rate example of each of those points: the narrative is charming, the dialog is rapier swift, and the telling both elegant and engaging. It’s odd then to also find, amongst all that good writing, little in the way of cohesive plot. Odder still to make that claim of a four hundred page book. But, the fact is, there’s not a lot of there there in Pleasure for Pleasure. And oddest yet, the book is thoroughly enjoyable despite it.
Erin McCarthy has stumbled onto a bit of obvious brilliance: If there is a perfect place for vampires in the twenty-first century, that place is Las Vegas. It’s logical that the hot, sexy, and just a-little-bit dangerous undead, would make a town that caters to the night and doesn’t blush over indulgences in avarice, lust, and gluttony their home. In the hands of the right author, Las Vegas is a backdrop rife with conflict and rich with potential for the living and not-so-alive alike. In the hands of the wrong author – an author who doesn’t seem to know the city beyond tourism commercials – well, then, you have the second installment in the Vegas Vampires series Bit the Jackpot.
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.
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.
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.