Wendy: The role of the small press has long been to champion what is overlooked by large publishers, to give readers choices beyond the homogenized products turned out by the behemoths, and to find a niche in the marketplace and fill it. In the last few years electronic publishers have done exactly that for romance, offering not only sub-genres and styles untouched by New York or Toronto, but authors as well. The electronic publishers aren’t the whole story, however; there are traditional small publishers (and next to Penguin USA everyone is small) out there, presses that don’t put out a few books a month, but rather a few books a year. What role are they to fill? Is there something unnoticed that only a small press could bring attention to? If Medallion Press is any indication, the role of this small publisher isn’t a niche market, but direct competition for the Big Boys.
Medallion Press’ one romantic suspense release for 2006 is Michelle Perry’s In Enemy Hands. Being the one book to fill any sub-genre for a publisher is perhaps a burden, but one In Enemy Hands handles with adequate aplomb. Perry’s hero, Dante Giovanni, is a bounty hunter known for getting his man. When Dante is asked to reunite a father with his daughter, he accepts the job not for the hefty paycheck, but because Dante understands the pain of a parent separated from their child. The mark, Nadia Branson, is the estranged-and-in-danger adult daughter of Gary Vandergriff. Or so Dante is led to believe. It’s when Dante delivers Nadia to Gary that Dante realizes he has been duped and that he’s placed the woman he’s come to love in the hands of a man out to destroy her.
It’s from this point that the story begins to shine. Perry keeps her characters’ backs to the wall and forces them to claw their way out of perilous situation after perilous situation as Dante attempts to rescue Nadia and return her to her family. Even the most outlandish action elements, as when Nadia jumps out of a plane without a parachute, knowing that Dante will fall out of the sky to save her, work for their heart bounding excitement rather than the achievement of realism. Unfortunately it takes 120 pages (more than a third of the book) to get to this point. The first portion of the story is largely focused on Dante and Nadia forming a quick and unconvincing bond. Dante doesn’t mix business with pleasure, he doesn’t sleep with his clients, yet no sooner are those thoughts formed than Dante is doing a fully clothed grind into Nadia. Likewise with Nadia, she’s a free spirit, she does what she wants, takes what she wants, flirts and spews sexual come-ons until that grind begins and suddenly Dante is a bit much for her. Even still, they fall in love within hours—it would seem—of their adrenalin spiked introduction.
At twenty-five, Dante Giovanni has lived enough life to fill thirty-five years. He’s been married and divorced, has a six year old child whom he doesn’t see, has served in the armed forces, lived and worked all over the world and gained a formidable enough reputation as a bounty hunter that clients seek him out. In romance, characters’ ages are more reflective of genre trends than part of the unique footprint of a character. In Enemy Hands bucks the current trend of heroes and heroines in the late twenties and early thirties in favor two characters in their mid-twenties. For Nadia, who reads very young, twenty-four makes sense and fits with the sheltered circumstances of her life. For Dante however, his age creates an opportunity for disbelief to enter in when comparing his age in years, to the amount of living he’s done. It is a minor point, but one that festers.
Despite the forced beginning, the romance between Dante and Nadia isn’t weak, yet it is the weakest element of In Enemy Hands. Had the love story match the action elements, this book would be a difficult to put down page-turner. As it is though, the romance weighs down the suspense and doesn’t offer enough to make this book stand out in an already crowded market place.
HelenKay: Authors kick around the theory that only a handful of basic plot structures exist, and the key is in finding a way to put a twist on one of those existing ideas. In this case, the bare bones romantic suspense plot at work is the strong-hero-hired-to-rescue-kidnapped-daughter-of-rich-guy. If Perry followed this road from beginning to end without any changes or diversions, the result would be a tired re-telling of stories told a thousand times before. Instead, Perry gives the plot a twist and makes it shine with a strong suspense element and a cast of engaging male characters.
Gary Vandergriff hires bounty hunter Dante Giovanni to track down Vandergriff’s ex-wife and daughter. Vandergriff insists his daughter is in danger and the man holding her, Nick Branson, is a dangerous drug dealer. Dante takes the assignment, quickly earns the trust of his target Nadia and her bevy of security guards, and then infiltrates the Branson compound by walking through the front door. Within a few days, the attraction between Dante and Nadia morphs into love. Dante believes he is doing the right thing, in addition to doing his job, when he lures Nadia away from her family into the arms of Vandergriff.
As the title of the book suggests, the handoff to Vandergriff actually delivers Nadia into the dangerous clutches of the man she spent her entire life trying to avoid. Almost immediately Dante senses he made a terrible mistake and tries to grab Nadia back. This is the point at which the book’s pacing picks up, the focus shifts from what feels like a shallow romance to what is a compelling race to safety, and the deeper and more interesting character aspects of Dante and Nadia appear.
In a series of suspenseful dodges and weaves, Dante tries to rescue Nadia and win back the trust of the Branson clan. This is no easy rescue. This one requires such activities as jumping out of an airplane and fighting off mountain lions. These larger-than-life experiences read as believable under Perry’s careful guidance. She does not overplay the scenes or over-describe. They flow naturally from the situations in which Nadia and Dante find themselves. The circumstances lead to a subtle race-against-time feel that keeps the plot humming along at full speed.
One of the problems here is the forced nature of the beginning of the book. At first, Nadia acts and appears too young for her age. Nadia’s background and social issues are explained in greater depth later and help to redeem her, but the seemingly immature heroine and quick lust-to-love attraction by both Nadia and Dante may make some readers tune out. That would be a shame because despite some initial floundering the book works. Nadia turns out to be strong – a heroine who does not sit back and wait for the hero to appear and save her. Instead, she conducts some rescuing of her own. Dante’s backstory and divorce make his quick fall for Nadia questionable, but his solid and centered nature makes him a hero you want to follow.
A group of diverse male characters round out the remainder of the cast. The banter of Branson bodyguards, the evil of Vandergriff, the vulnerability of Nick Branson and the shifting sides a few of these secondary take add depth and life to the book. These gentlemen help fill in some of the holes left by a romance that fails to be as rich and full as it could be. The combination of strong male characters and an interesting non-romance plot make this a better suspense than romance, but the overall effect of the book is enjoyable and satisfying.
Wendy’s Question: Before buying, we judge books by their titles, their jacket copies, and yes, most certainly, by their covers. What role does the publisher play in your book buying decisions? Do you, for example, build up expectations for a new Berkeley Sensation release because you generally like what that line puts out, or expect less of books published by lines you’ve never connected with?
HelenKay’s Response: Except in category romance where the issue is about liking one line versus another, I have to admit that the “which publisher” question is not something I noticed until I started writing. Picking up a book, looking at the cover and reading the back – yes, all of those. But, checking the spine for the publisher is a new phenomenum, one born of writing and submitting manuscripts for publication. Now, I am much more aware of publishers and lines. There are publishers I prefer, but I really think that’s a matter of how I feel about the writers in that program, and the type of books the publisher is putting out. For instance, if a book comes out by Downtown Press, I presume I want to read it because I like the risks the imprint takes. When it comes to small presses, I’m open. I don’t assume small press means less quality. Perry’s book would have fit into the publishing programs at Mira, HQN or any number of other houses. Really, if having strong books come out of small presses challenges the Big Boys to release better and better books, I’m all for it. I guess the real question is whether or not these small presses have the distribution needed to get the titles out to a significant number of people. I hope so.
HelenKay’s Final Thought: Weak start but an otherwise satisfying read.
Wendy’s Final Thought: In Enemy Hands is uneven but not unenjoyable.
You can visit Michelle here and purchase this book here and here.