The time has come to throw back the curtain and provide a sneak peek into the inner workings of PBR. If you believe all of the book discussions resemble refined Oprah Book Club teas, prepare to be disappointed. The behind-the-scenes action here at PBR is not all that sophisticated at times. In fact, the words “rugby match” come to mind.
The process starts simply enough. Books arrive from authors, from publishers, from PR professionals and, every now and then, from actual bookstores following the exchange of money or credit between PBR reviewers and said bookstores. We pass around titles and upcoming releases. But sometimes – not all the time, but sometimes – a book just sits there and manages to create controversy.
Enter the anthology Hell With The Ladies by Julie Kenner, Kathleen O’Reilly and Dee Davis.
You go to the bookstore in search of a contemporary romance read. A solid, straightforward romance read. Not erotica or erotic romance. No suspense or mystery. No vampires, werewolves or other evidence of paranormal. Sounds easy in theory. Reality is the problem.
Oh, books of this type are on the shelves. You just have to dig through all of the book with photos of vampires, witches and mostly naked people on the bindings first. And when you find that non-historical, non-erotica, non-paranormal romance you face an even bigger issue – will it hold your attention. The question is, without the worldbuilding necessary for paranormal romance, without a dead body or missing something, will this newly purchased contemporary romance keep you turning all 400 pages. Authors like Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jennifer Crusie, Lani Diane Rich and Meg Cabot craft novels where the pacing, plot and character development all work together with success. Others don’t.
This is a don’t.
HelenKay: Trouble in High Heels highlights the fine difference between an imaginary scenario and a truly unbelievable one. The former may qualify as solid fiction if accompanied by strong writing, fully developed characters and a unique voice. But combine that questionable plot with flat characters and the only thing the reader gets is a long, dull read.
In order to succeed, fiction must have story sustaining conflict that keeps characters’ backs against the wall as they fight against the bad guys, against themselves, against god, against whatever can be thrown at them. Conflict needs to rise as the story progresses, but it also needs to rise in believable-in-keeping-with-the-story fashion. A man, for example, who wakes to find a price on his life, might then flee only to have every avenue of escape cut off: his car gone, his back accounts drained, his network of support suddenly vanished. It all follows and makes it harder for the character to fight his way out of a bad situation. What wouldn’t make a lot of sense, or remain in the story vein, would be for that man to then start worshipping the pack of purple rhinos that materialized on the corner of 8th and Main. Purple rhinos would make an interesting facet of another story but this man on the run, trying to save his own life, has his hands full. Conflict is only good if it’s believable and cohesive, and it’s the lack of believable cohesion that plagues Susan Grant’s Your Planet, or Mine.
Trust is a far reaching issue in romance. There are heroes who doubt heroines, and heroines who lack faith in heroes, and authors who don’t trust their readers. Two of those trust issues manage to faithfully resolve themselves before the happily ever after. The third is a real problem. Too often romances are plagued by authors who write down to their readers, over simplify and over explain. Unsurprisingly, the resulting fiction is a joyless chore. Authors who write intelligently, in anticipation of an intelligent readership are a rare, but welcome, find. Romance that trusts the reader not only engages, but begs the question: why isn’t all romance like this? Why isn’t intelligent writing a minimum requirement for the genre? Why isn’t it a starting point from which to improve, instead of an exceptional find?
Susan Donovan trusts her audience: it’s obvious in the way she takes a well used romance setup and treats it as though it hasn’t been done over and over again; it’s obvious from the way she doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator; and it’s obvious from the way she expects the reader to keep up with her writing instead of spoon feeding every bit of information.
Carlotta Wren’s life is a mess. Her parents skipped town rather than stand up in a courtroom for their white collar crimes. So, at eighteen, Carlotta lost her fiancee and financial security, but gained full-time care of her baby brother Wesley. Now, years later, her baby brother continues to seek out trouble and every gambling opportunity possible. Being on the financial edge and in debt to everyone, Wesley’s antics threaten both Carlotta and Wesley.
But Wesley is the least of Carlotta’s problems. There’s the return of her ex-fiancee, the murder of the ex-fiancee’s now-wife, a mysterious detective, a hot former doctor who gives Wesley a chance and Carlotta more than one look, a questionable female attorney with a shady link to Carlotta’s father and a probation officer who looks more like a stripper than a member of law enforcement. And those are only the main characters in Stephanie Bond’s newest, Body Movers, the first installment in an ongoing series.
Let the discussion begin.
There are two aspects of American history that I believe the romance genre handles especially poorly. The first is the Civil War; the second is anything to do with the treatment of Native American people, especially during the 1800s. Both topics are so frequently mired in politically correct approaches that they come off as sugar-coated and false.
Despite knowing this, I cling to a very frayed thread of optimism, hoping someday I will read an Indian romance that both feels honest and helps me to understand reader (and author) fascination with Indian/European coupling. In The Spirit Of The Wolf, the story of an Indian scout on an unclear mission to save his people and an Englishwoman trying to make her way back home, Karen Kay fails to do either.
Just in time for wedding season, Catch of the Day arrives with wedding themed novellas by Whitney Lyles, Beverly Brandt, Cathie Linz and Pamela Clare. This anthology offers readers a quick and uncomplicated dip into stories that stay tightly focused on the hero and heroine, while wading through bridal bouquets, pre-wedding jitters, extreme ceremonies, and ugly bridesmaid dresses. Like any wedding, Catch of the Day‘s crescendos are well planned and well carried out and conversely the low points are as painful and disastrous as a fumbled wedding cake.
HelenKay: For years romance readers have complained about the too-stupid-to-live (TSTL) heroine. This is the woman who acts in ways that defy common sense and reality. The nonsensical decisions they make come both in the face of true adversity and in reaction to mundane problems. Many times this TSTL woman is too insecure to make a life decision without the approval of her mother or father or grandparent or priest or neighbor or 4th grade teacher or someone in an equal position of power. Despite this, somehow and without explanation, she can take on a McGyver-like quality and diffuse a Tomahawk Missile with her barrette using only the knowledge she gained while growing up on a Kansas farm.
In spite of, or maybe in reaction to, these TSTL heroines comes the kick-ass heroine. These ladies don’t need family permission to take a job or a caucus of friends to pick which man to date. Many can shoot, run, kill, diffuse and fight. Unfortunately, many of these ladies also defy common sense and reality, mostly because of their ability to morph from “normal” to superhuman with little explanation. In those cases, the contexts of their kick-ass natures are wrong. But there are others. Silhouette Bombshell promises from the outset a “strong, savvy, sexy heroine who always saves the day.” A reader goes in expecting a kick-ass heroine with specialized skills and an attitude to match. The worry isn’t that the reader will encounter a TSTL heroine. A kick-ass heroine is guaranteed. The worry then is that the kick-ass heroine won’t convince or stay true to who she is and her surroundings. Wendy Rosnau overcomes all of these worries and delivers on the Bombshell promise with the compelling romantic thriller The Spy With The Silver Lining.
Have you heard? Chick lit is dead. The plucky heroine? Over. Tales of life among the single in the big city? Gone the way of Studio 54; the business records have been seized and threats of jail time for tax evasion loom. Variety, a publication devoted to reporting about the film industry, said so. They even used phrases like “as out of style as last year’s Jimmy Choos” and “jumped the shark.” The focus of contemporary women’s literature, Variety claims, is a more grown up, post-Sex and the City phase of life, the literary equivalent of “disco sucks.” Can any of this be true? Is it safe to trust a Hollywood publication’s take on publishing? Sure, if you don’t mind following pronouncements that are so far behind the curve that what they declare as old has had time to become new again.
It is into this 70s-like hangover that Liz Ireland’s The Pink Ghetto arrives complete with its plucky twenty-something heroine, who lives in New York, works as a book editor and is chronically unlucky in love. It’s almost like the “chick lit is dead” memo didn’t get wide circulation, or more likely well written stories continue to be published in defiance of trend watchers.