For a romance novel to be rich and full, one of the usual requirements is that the heroine possess believable faults and, in some cases, many faults. Idiosyncrasies, difficult backstories, fears, dysfunctional families all help to fill-in the person the heroine is at the beginning of a story. Faults, yes, but rarely does a heroine seduce then suck the souls of the men she meets. That’s just not something a “normal” heroine does. Then again, a succubus is not a “normal” heroine and Succubus Blues is not the usual romance.
Sometimes you enjoy a book, reading cover-to-cover with a speed usually reserved for eating your way through a family-size potato chip bag, and you have no idea why. Maybe the plot isn’t all that new. Maybe there are flaws in the reasoning by both the heroine and hero. Maybe there are a few (or more than a few) “wait, what just happened?” moments. Maybe there’s an overly annoying character, or an immature character or an unnecessary character. Yet you keep on munching. Debra Mullins’ Two Weeks With A Stranger, an enjoyable read-it-in-two-sittings historical romance, has a bit of that flavor.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For a story to be engaging for a reader there must be a connection. Whether that connection comes via a relationship with the protagonist, antagonist, or plot, does not matter; simply that it exists to spur the reader on to read until the end. If this connection does not exist there reader will become bored, and the plot holes or character flaws that they would have forgiven for the sake of the story become obvious. Under intense scrutiny the story itself may fall apart as it did with Alex McAulay’s Lost Summer.
Back at the dawn of the chicklit era, authors like Helen Fielding and Melissa Banks were getting a lot of attention (even though I still remain confused by Melissa Banks’ inclusion on the chicklit list). However, a select, savvy group of readers were hip to an author who largely slipped under the media radar: Marian Keyes.
Keyes is an Irish author who writes bitingly funny, painfully real stories about modern day Irish women and the troubles that foil them. Keyes’ depiction of her country – much drinking, smoking, drugging, shopping, and middle class mores – is short on the mystical, magical, woo-woo that passes for Ireland in romance fiction. Since I much prefer the Irish of The Pogues, I couldn’t be happier.