Review: Seize The Fire, Laura Kinsale

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Wherein Kinsale makes me cry. Again.

My take in brief: Another great from the great. In intensity and sense of rollicking adventure, it reminded me of Outlander.

Setting: 1820s England, Madeira (Portugal), Falkland Islands, Saudi Arabia

Series?: I don’t think so.

Heroine and Hero: Sir Sheridan Drake, recently retired Royal Navy captain. Although celebrated for his heroic service to the King, Sheridan is a selfish — and quite destitute — lout who suffers from post traumatic stress syndrome. Her Serene Highness Olympia St. Ledger of Oriens (a tiny country between France and Savoy) is a naive, sometimes foolish, but goodhearted princess, raised in exile in England, who hopes to enlist Sir Sheridan’s help to return to Oriens to lead a revolution, paving the way for democratic rule.

Plot: Like a wolf asked to guard a sheep, Sheridan agrees to help Olympia travel to Oriens, all the while hoping to gain something for himself — either through theft or ransom — in the process. Things go awry, and the book follows the pair on a series of incredible high seas adventures.

Fun facts: Originally published in 1989, this is one of three Kinsale reissues from Sourcebooks Casablanca, a small independent publisher who sent me this copy. Initial hopes that the reissues signaled a new Kinsale (her most recent work, Shadowheart, was published in 2004) appear to have been unfounded. If you are wondering what all the fuss is about Laura Kinsale, read Janine’s “If You Like” article at Dear Author or Keishon’s retrospective at Avid Book Reader.

Seize the Fire was a finalist for the Golden Choice Award for Best Romance of 1989, Romance Writers of America, and a Finalist for the 1990 Romance Writers of America RITA Award for Best Historical (the latter award went to Silver Noose by Patricia Gardner).

Word on the Web (How can there be so few reviews of this book??)

Musings of a Blbiophile (Brie), A

Amazon.com: 4.5 stars after 18 reviews

The Racy Romance Review:

Seize the Fire is my fourth Kinsale. I began with Flowers From the Storm, which still ranks as my most memorably intense romance reading experience. FFTS fixed my impression, still unshaken, that Kinsale is among the best writers in the genre. I then read The Shadow and the Star and The Hidden Heart, both terrific, although I enjoyed STF even more than either of those.

I almost hate having to let readers know that Sheridan suffers from PTSD, because so many romance readers are sick unto death of that “trope”. But wait. Have you ever liked a song or a movie, and then found out it’s a cover or a remake? And then experienced the original? And then wondered how you could ever have been satisfied with the copy? That’s how I feel about Sheridan. I don’t know whether Sheridan was the first romance hero with PTSD, but I would bet he was one of the first, and he’s a true original.

Some romance authors seem to think, falsely, that experiencing war automatically causes PTSD. With Sheridan, Kinsale gives us a convincing combination of temperament (self-interested, wry, charming, and witty, yet wise, honorable, and deeply sensitive), childhood neglect, truly horrific wartime atrocities for which he bears responsibility, and undeserved lionization, that together serve to explain why this character acquires PTSD.

The scene when Olympia and Sheridan meet — she arrives as a humble supplicant at his crumbling manor home with a dying potted plant and a copy of Rousseau (The Social Contract, I’m guessing) — sets up the dynamic of the first half of the book: Olympia’s naive but noble determination to save her countrymen from tyranny, and her admiration and puppy love for Sheridan, butting up against the reality that he’s a dissolute cynical rake who plans to take full advantage of her.

There’s something very Rousseauian in the whole text, actually, and someone ought to write a paper on it. Olympia is described as having “the kind of face that looked out of burrows and tree-knots and hedgerows, unblinking innocent and as old as time.” From the start, Kinsale signals that while Olympia may be dangerously hopeful, there’s a wisdom and necessity in her optimistic view of human nature.

Sheridan, corrupted by the horrors of civilization, has a visceral response (and this is classic dreamy-psychological Kinsale, a style I love. But then, Mrs. Dalloway is one of my favorite books):

As he observed her in musing silence, a novel thought occurred to him. It slipped through his mind so subtly that it seemed to mingle like smoke with his physical perceptions, with the way the dim light through the stained-glass window fell across her hair in little iridescent rainbows, and the scent of old tobacco and dust lingered in the room. He wondered — absurdly — if this was what she had come for — simply to sit in the stillness and be alive and share it with him.

Something inside, something tiny he hadn’t even known was there, seemed to unfold, to spread tentative petals open like a desert flower sensing rain.

She turned and looked up at him, her great unblinking eyes full of forest wisdom. He thought foolishly: Let me stay here. I need this.

The first half of the book is a lot like other rake/virgin dynamics, only way better, and is almost light in comparison to the second. Here’s a typical Sheridan reflection from the first half of the book:

It was the first and last occasion, Sheridan thought, that he would attempt to be a felon. Being a natural-born bastard was quite stimulating enough. He didn’t need this kind of excitement.

And here’s Sheridan sizing up the competition, another captain with an eye for Olympia:

Captain Fitzhugh was hardly older than Princess Olympia herself — not a complete fool but managing to conceal the fact, torn between the dignity of his first command and eagerness to impress Captain Sir Sheridan Drake and his sister. He talked too loud and gave his opinion on every possible subject. His only redeeming quality was a modicum of sense: his opinions weren’t hopelessly stupid as long as he kept off religion, which he generally didn’t.

As their adventures unfold, they both change and grow. Olympia becomes stronger, wiser, and more pragmatic as she begins to see the real Sheridan, warts and all, and, through him, the harsh truths of the world. Sheridan, who is, like all romance rakes, truly good underneath it all, slowly begins to make himself vulnerable to Olympia, revealing his deepest, most shameful secrets.

Much of their reassessment of each other and themselves takes place when they are stranded on an island in the middle of the book. Their interlude on the island is probably the best 100 pages of romance I have ever read, with one of the most loving, adult, and frank virginal seductions and one of the most heartbreaking unrequited declarations of love in all of romance.

Because this is a Kinsale, just when you think things are as bad as they could possibly be, they get much much worse. Thus, in the last 2/5 of the book, Olympia and Sheridan find themselves at odds again, and Sheridan descends into a bitter, distant, suicidal funk.

I loved this book, but I don’t think it’s perfect. Here are a few things that didn’t work for me:

1. Frequent references to Olympia as pudgy or plump. Her weight was used as a shorthand for her character in a way I found appalling.

2. The back stories of Olympia as a princess and Sheridan as a frustrated musician.

3. Sheridan pushes Olympia away late in the novel, and she buys it.

4. The reversal at the end.

Seize the Fire asks us to think about some very difficult questions, as you might expect with a book that begins with Rousseau and ends with Plato (the Laches of all things!). The meaning of loyalty, courage, love and war. The purpose of life in the face of tragic contingency. Sheridan and Olympia both come to see that there was no fork in the road where they could have chosen to live life unscathed, without the crushing burden of responsibility for their fellow humans. “We’re dominoes” Sheridan says, “We fall one way or we fall another.”

When I read Kinsale, I’m deeply moved — and not just by negative emotions, like fear or sadness or heartbreak, but by positive ones, like relief and happiness and joy.

It’s a paradox that fictional characters can move us in this way. We know they are not real. Yet the emotions we feel for them are. Professionally, paradoxes like this bother me. But personally, they make me glad to be a human being who can experience the gift of literature. And that probably sums up my review of this book.

Published in: on November 24, 2008 at 10:49 pm  Comments (7)  
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Runaway Train: Uncontrollable Hero Lust in Romance

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“If you touch me again,” [Zachary] said raggedly. I won’t be able to stop. I’ll take you right here, Holly … do you understand?” – Where Dreams Begin, Lisa Kleypas

***

He bent his head beside hers. “I can’t help myself,” he murmured roughly. “I can’t — stop myself.” — The Shadow and the Star, Laura Kinsale

***

I couldn’t stop now if all the forces in hell got in the way,” he said, and he was parting her legs with his own…” — The Waiting Game, Jayne Ann Krentz

***

“Tell me if I’m too rough, Or tell me to stop altogether, if ye wish. Anytime until we are joined; I dinna think I can stop after that.” –Outlander, Diana Gabaldon

***

“Be sweet”, I said, the first time I had spoken.

“I can’t. Next time I’ll be sweet, I swear.” –Living Dead in Dallas, Charlaine Harris

***

His face lowered to hers, so close that she felt his ragged exhalation against her lips. “Emma, you can trust me with your life. But I am not your brother. You cannot trust me in this.” – Duke of Shadows, Meredith Duran

***

She smiled. “We’re engaged. You can touch me.”

“No, actually, I can’t.” He straightened and picked up the paring knife again. “If I touch you, I’m not certain I’ll be able to stop.” –The Serpent Prince, Elizabeth Hoyt

***

“Lucinda,” he breathed, his arms shaking a little as they held his weight, “This is your last chance to esc-” –England’s Perfect Hero, Suzanne Enoch

***

“Don’t move, or I won’t be able to stop myself.” –Dreaming of You, Lisa Kleypas

These examples weren’t hard to find: they’re from my own book shelf.  Historicals are overrepresented, due both to the fact that I have more historicals in my house than any other subgenre of romance, and also because historicals, featuring so many virgins, probably lend themselves to this kind of talk.

Still, I don’t think it would difficult to find many other paranormal and contemporary examples (and if you have any in mind, please share).  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that male lust as a runaway train is pretty common in romance, or at least in romances published in the last several years, probably because driving men wild is a powerful fantasy for many women readers.

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"Somebody stop me!"

It just so happens that I was reading the classic Lois Pineau essay, “Date Rape: A Feminist Analysis”, this week. (Law and Philosophy 8, 1989, 217-243).

In that essay, Pineau defines date rape as nonconsensual sex that does not involve physical injury (actual or threatened). Consent is determined from the perspective of the man: the court has to be persuaded that the man believed, sincerely and reasonably, that the woman did not consent (this is the mens rea, or “guilty mind” — criminal intent — requirement).

Pineau claims that it’s very hard for a woman to prove she did not consent to date rape thanks to some mutually supporting myths, the whole of which she calls the “aggression-acquiescence” model of sexuality. One is the myth that male sexual desire is “so hard to control.”

The rationale, I believe, comes in the form of a belief in the especially insistent nature of male sexuality … At a certain point in the arousal process, it is thought, a man’s rational will gives way to the prerogatives of nature. His sexual need can and does reach a point where it is uncontrollable, and his natural masculine aggression kicks in to ensure that this need is met.

Pineau claims that this myth works with other myths, like that women have a disproportionate burden for controlling men’s sexuality, for example, by not being sexually provocative, to invalidate nonconsent. (She’s offering mainly conceptual analysis, but there’s lots of empirical data for the prevalence of the myth of uncontrollable male sexuality among rapists. Prosecutor and law prof Andrew E. Taslitz, in Rape and the Culture of the Courtroom, gives a number of examples of these myths at work, to support his general thesis that “what storytelling theory teaches us is that patriarchal tales are of enormous power, weighing heavily in favor of the defense. The power disparity is so great that it is very difficult for the victim’s story even to be heard” [NYU Press, 1999].)

Catharine Peirce Wells thinks that Pineau’s proposal to allow mere silence or unenthusiastic encouragement to count as nonconsent is harmful to men. In “Date Rape and the Law: Another Feminist View” (Date Rape: Feminist, Philosophy and the Law, Ed. Leslie Francis, Penn State University Press, 1996) Wells has this to say:

[Consider] a typical romance novel. The handsome hero sweeps a charming but inexperienced woman off her feet. She doesn’t object, nor does she offer much encouragement. For her, the romance of the situation is enhanced by the fact that she feels overwhelmed by the hero’s strong (single-minded) and silent (noncommunicative) pursuit of sexual pleasure. Certainly, the woman who “succumbs” in such circumstances does not have a self-empowering view of her own sexuality. And perhaps there are many women who would find the hero neither sexy nor ethical. However, if millions of women buy such novels and describe these scenes as ‘sexy’, can we really convict a man of rape when he interprets his partner’s conduct in the context of this story? Is it unreasonable for a man in this society to construe such silence as consent? Under such circumstances, shouldn’t we at least require that the woman say “NO!”?

Wells contends that the popularity of romance novels proves that Pineau’s definition of date rape is too all encompassing, not leaving room for a very popular and socially accepted type of seduction which both women and men enjoy. (She doesn’t consider that what women may enjoy in fantasy is not that enjoyable in reality).

None of the romance scenes I listed above are rapes. In several of those scenes, the hero does in fact stop, despite claiming that he cannot. And the ensuing or eventual sexual encounters are very satisfying to both consenting parties.

However, it’s undeniable that those passages make sense to readers because of a pervasive myth about male sexuality, and it’s also undeniable that this very myth plays a certain unsavory role in rape, whether legitimizing it in the eyes of the perpetrator, or in the eyes of the court (or the eyes of the victim).

[Consider those lines — in a contemp or paranormal — coming from a woman. Would they feel as normal?]

How do you think this common romance “trope” functions in these examples?  Does it shore up problematic myths about uncontrollable sexual urges of men? Or does it serve, pace Wells, to re-conceive the myth of uncontrollable male sexuality from a woman’s point of view?

Published in: on November 21, 2008 at 6:58 am  Comments (34)  
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Quick Reflections on Blogging: The First 100 Days

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Don’t be shocked by tone of my voice
Check out my new weapon, weapon of choice

Fatboy Slim,  Weapon of Choice

For my own records, a quick take on blogging so far…

  • I found tons of great blogs … but I’ve lost time to visit and comment on them
  • I started a great new hobby … at the cost of some old ones, like movie watching
  • I made some cyberfriends … but definitely annoyed a few folks
  • I have learned so much about the genre … exactly enough to know how ignorant I am
  • I have the pleasure of a platform when I want to rant or rave … and the pressure of an empty stage when I don’t (or can’t)
  • I have more books for my TBR pile … and less time to read them
  • I have a place to record my thoughtful reflections … and a permanent record of my lame posts that I can never truly erase
  • I’ve gotten some free books to review … but an externally imposed reading schedule because of it
  • I always have an option when I want to procrastinate … and I always — unfortunately —  have an option if I want to procrastinate

This list makes it look like the gains and losses are equal, but actually, so far, the gains are overall much greater than the losses.

Published in: on November 18, 2008 at 8:25 pm  Comments (13)  
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Mad to Miss it, Sad to Skip it: Megan Hart’s Dirty

I’ve decided to start a new feature, in which I talk about books that I love. I haven’t just finished them — I feel like I need at least six months and one reread to make sure my initial fondness wasn’t due to hormones, illicit drugs, or being the first halfway decent read after a slew of crappola — but they’re still on my mind as examples of what I have enjoyed the most about this genre.

They’re books that you’d be mad to miss and sad to skip!

(I better not quit my day job for a career in marketing, huh?)

This post is actually an offshoot from another idea I had for a regular feature called “A Fangirl Rewrites Your Review”, wherein I take a negative review of a book I love and, um, revise it a little.

But I’m not going to talk about those other reviews. You want to know why? Because I’m not trying to hear that, as Positive K rapped lo these many years ago. See, I haven’t merely read this book. I’ve bonded with it. My love for this book has vaulted way beyond rational persuasion. It’s somewhere in that realm where fangirls rule and naysayers cower, where the streets are paved with fanfiction, and where Squeenglish is the only language spoken.

Comments are welcome, even by those who just don’t get it disagree. But please know that I descended from fangirland to write this post in an impenetrable bubble — kind of like the Popemobile, only sexier — of delirious reader satisfaction which you cannot possibly burst.

(more…)

Published in: on November 14, 2008 at 8:56 pm  Comments (14)  
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Review: Living Dead in Dallas, Charlaine Harris

My Take in Brief: A terrific second installment.

For background on this series, and introductions to the main characters, see my review of Dead Until Dark. This review contains spoilers for Dead Until Dark.

Word on the Web:

Avid Book Reader, Keishon, positive

Book Smugglers, Ana and Thea, both 7 out of 10

AAR, Rachael, B+

LoveVampires, 5 stars (btw, this is one of the coolest looking blogs I have ever seen)

TRR, Susan, 4 hearts (she gave Dead Until Dark 5) (Ok, I have to take issue with this line: “Bill is caring, protective, and sexy.” Um. No, no, and …hmmm… let me think … NO! Explanation below.)

Thrifty Reader, B+

Amazon.com, 4 stars after 149 reviews

Plot: One plot involves solving the mystery of who murdered Sookie’s friend and coworker, who is found dead in a car outside Merlotte’s early on in the book. Another involves the appearance of the maenad, another supernatural creature, who wreaks havoc at pivotal moments. A third involves Sookie’s trip to Dallas to help the vampires find a kidnapped vamp.

The Racy Romance Review:

I loved Dead Until Dark and I also loved Living Dead in Dallas. (I love this series so much that I have turned it into an academic interest. You can read the abstracts for the papers I am working on here.) However, romance fans should know that this second installment is even less of a romance than the first, for several reasons, the main one of which is that Sookie’s relationship with Bill is now steady, and often takes a back seat to other things. Another reason is Sookie’s sexual interest in other men. For example, she shares a lusty kiss with Sam, her boss:

Sam’s lips actually felt hot, and his tongue, too. The kiss was deep, intense, unexpected, like the excitement you feel when someone gives you a present you didn’t know you wanted. His arms were around me, mine were around him, and we were giving it everything we had, until I came back to earth.

A third reason I find it less of a romance is Bill’s utter lack of typical romance hero traits. I’ve already blogged about how how odd a hero a vamp makes.  Bill has always been not just reserved and quiet, but flat. For example, after an emotional separation and even more heated reunion, here’s Bill’s line:

“Let’s not separate again.” Bill said.

Makes you go all melty, huh? For another, Bill is never around when Sookie needs him — she always gets out of her jams without Bill’s help. Third, he’s inconsiderate. He never thinks about how his presence in her life can make hers better, nor about how it’s making it worse, which it is. He seems mostly interested in having sex with Sookie and having her look good enough to make other vamps jealous. Fourth, when he’s not horny, he’s disengaged, spending most of his time on the computer (a circumstance that takes on some significance in the next book). The guy is just not good boyfriend material, by either human or vampire standards.

I don’t like Bill, and I sure wish Sookie would show him the door (she’d wouldn’t be alone for long. Sookie’s like catnip to males — human, vamp, and shapeshifter alike — a fact which bothers some readers) but the way Harris writes him, he’s very real. Besides, I read the Southern Vampire Mysteries for Sookie, Bon Temps, and the vampire culture Harris has created, and on all those counts, it was very rewarding.

I love the distinctions — both large and fine — that Harris draws between vampires and humans. For example, when Sookie and Bill are preparing to leave their Dallas hotel room to meet Stan, the local head vampire, she makes this observation:

He gave me a dark look, patted his pockets like men do, just to make sure they got everything. It was an oddly human gesture, and it touched me in a way I couldn’t even describe to myself.

And this one:

People fidget. They are compelled to look engaged in an activity, or purposeful. Vampires can just occupy space without feeling obliged to justify it.

(I did notice one very rare slip in Harris’s mythology. Sookie and Bill are getting amorous against the hotel room door — all the sex scenes in these books are briefly described and nonexplicit, by the way — and Harris writes, Sookie “wriggled against him and his breath caught in his throat.” Hmmm.)

Sookie grows quite a bit in this installment (although her habit of frequent crying remains unchanged). She goes to the big city for the first time as an adult, takes on a job that offers new challenges, and takes decisive action at several points in the story, often without Bill’s knowledge or approval. She becomes more comfortable with her negative emotions, such as anger and jealousy, and more confident of her telepathy, using it in new purposeful ways. And, most interesting to me, she acknowledges not just the gray areas in morality, but the fact that we sometimes have to make choices which compromise our integrity regardless of how careful or well-meaning we are.

But she’s still uniquely Sookie. She hasn’t turned into your generic super heroine. She relies on her Word of the Day calendar, her copious reading of genre fiction, especially mystery, her knowledge of movies, and her common sense to figure things out, often long before the supposedly superior vampires do.

(Although I have a slight beef with the telepathy. In an early scene Sookie says “I could hear my temper creak and give way. Bill, unfortunately could not” but later, Sookie thinks, “[Bill] could pick up my slightest mood, which was wonderful about eighty per cent of the time.” This is one of my pet peeves in books with empathic or telepathic characters — it seems to come in and out at the author’s will, not the characters’.)

Happily, we learn more about how the vampires are organized, and how their power is structured. We discover that some vampires experience remorse or ennui after years of immortality, and commit suicide by “meeting the sun”. Others, rejecting the new era of assimilation into human society, become “rogues”, drinking and killing humans to encourage renewed social division.

Human attitudes towards vampires vary correspondingly, from the wannabe “Fangbangers”, to the Brotherhood of the Sun, an anti-vampire cult. Parallels to race relations in the US are not hard to draw, especially when Sookie herself explicitly compares the cult to the KKK.

There’s so much more going on in Living Dead in Dallas that this review hasn’t touched. There’s a development with Sam, for example, that I felt was very out of character for him, basically a klunky way to get him involved in the action at the climax. But one thing I had to mention was Eric, Bill’s vampire boss. Harris, via Sookie, tells us over and over that Eric is pure vampire: selfish, sex obsessed, violent without remorse. But in his actions toward Sookie, Eric is thoughtful, kind, generous, restrained, tender, helpful, and protective. Everything, in short, which Bill, despite the appellation “boyfriend” is not. Hmm.

I’ve already read the third installment, Club Dead, and since the series shows no sign of letting up, neither will I!

Published in: on November 13, 2008 at 10:59 pm  Comments (9)  
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Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: Alpha Heroes as Nietzschean Supermen

Pure silliness ahead.

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A lot of people know that the lyric from Kanye West’s “Stronger”, “N-n-now that that don’t kill me, can only make me stronger” is sort of a Nietzsche quote. Well, I happened to be reading Nietzsche today, then heard “Stronger” on the way home, then the idea for a post came to me. (Plus, a Texas lit prof was banned, temporarily, it turns out, from putting the German version of Nietzsche’s most quoted sentence, “God is Dead” on his office door, so I felt like I needed to spread the Nietzsche as much as possible in retaliation.)

Nietzsche was very critical of everyday morality — the “we are all equal”, “go along to get along”, “subordinate your will to the will of the group” morality —   which he felt kept the “higher types”, the truly excellent, flourishing human beings, down, ashamed of the very things they should be most proud of. Judeo-Christian morality, Nietzsche felt, was a complicated and ingrained rationalization for a lot of base human emotions, like envy, resentment, and fear. He hoped that, among other things, his critique and exposure of morality as a disease could help in releasing/creating these higher men.

So, what characteristics did these higher men (and they were always men) possess (you can read more here)?

They were solitary, pursued a unifying life project, healthy, life-affirming, and self-reverent.

Solitary — not congenial, not nice, not eager to curry the favor of strangers. Unconcerned with what “they” think.

Unifying life project – he is driven, he seeks out burdens and responsibilities, rather than shying away from them. But it’s not random boldness: he has a life purpose that animates everything he does.

Healthy — resilient, strong (the Kanye West lyric above). Even when the higher man is down, is tortured, is physically ill, he uses it as a challenge to overcome.

Life-affirming — No regrets. The higher man turns everything somehow to his advantage, makes it a part of the narrative of his life. Would he do it all over again, exactly the same way? Yes.  (Nietzsche writes: “I myself have never suffered from all this; what is necessary does not hurt me; amor fati [love of fate] is my inmost nature” (Ecce Homo H III:CW-4).

Self-reverential – not plagued by self-doubt, self-loathing, he has a “fundamental certainty” about himself. He is powerful, and has power over himself. He is severe with himself and others. He is noble, he is of a different rank than other men, has a different bearing.

“Our weak, unmanly social concepts of good and evil and their tremendous ascendancy over body and soul have finally weakened all bodies and souls and snapped the self-reliant, independent, unprejudiced men, the pillars of a strong civilization” (Daybreak 163).

Not all romance heroes have all of these qualities (the Chase cover works better for the pose mirroring Nietzsche’s than for the hero possessing these traits), but it struck me that there’s some interesting overlap, especially when alpha heroes transgress everyday morality to exact revenge, seduce a virgin, steal, etc. in the name of a life-organizing project.

It would be interesting to try to think of a hero who fits all of the above. I’m all out of ideas at the moment.

Published in: on November 10, 2008 at 10:13 pm  Comments (22)  
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Review: Market for Love, Jamaica Layne

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In which my inner bitch is unleashed upon the blogosphere.

Previously published as an ebook with New Concepts Publishing (yes, that New Concepts, the one of the web furor earlier this year at  Karen Knows Best and Dear Author) Market for Love is published under the Cheek imprint, a division of Random House, which is “about female pleasure. …but it is also about the pleasures of pampering, shopping, dressing up, having great times, and enjoying all that young life has to offer.” Chick lit meets erotica, basically.

The plot of this book is simple: a stock analyst has sex with her new boss without knowing who he is. Mortified and concerned for her job, she tries to put a stop to the affair, but he demeans and harasses her repeatedly in the work place, uses questionable means to obtain personal information about her, and stalks her at her home. She eventually gives in, only to have him decide he has to push her away in order to save her from himself. They declare their mutual love. The end.

My biases: I need to admit to two things that may well have caused my mere lack of enjoyment to morph into strong dislike. First, when I was asked to review it, I Googled the author, whose name was not familiar to me. It turns out that Jamaica Layne is a pen name for a playwright whose works about women have been recognized by the National Women’s Studies Association and performed at universities (often sponsored by Women’s Studies programs) around the country. I wasn’t stupid enough to expect “empowerment erotica”, but I confess that the sting of this book was more painful due to how little I expected the anti-woman sensibility which animates it.

Second, on Monday of last week, I found out that one of my male students was stalking and harassing one of my female students. I know both of them fairly well, so this situation was upsetting on more than one level. The female student was moved, with a security detail, to a safe house, her studies abandoned, her sanity in shambles. Restraining orders aside, she cannot walk across the quad without fear, day or night. Suffice it to say that when I poured myself a glass of wine Friday night and sat down to enjoy some light contemporary romance, I was not in the mood for “sexual harassment erotica”.

Without further ado, what’s not to like about Market For Love?

1. The sexual harassment. Can office romances be hot? Sure. Do I think no romance should never be written that features an alpha boss and his or her employee? No. I really liked The Raven Prince, by Elizabeth Hoyt, for example. But the way this is written, Miranda is a victim, pure and simple. Her body “betrays her”, sure, but in her head, from her first meeting with Max (when, a complete stranger, he chastises her in public at a coffee shop), he makes her feel only negative things: scared, sad, angry, embarrassed, incompetent, powerless. When Miranda rebuffs Max, trying to establish some boundaries, he reminds her that he’s the boss and she can be fired at any moment, referring to her privately as “a stone-cold frigid bitch.”

2. The characters. Max is the classic alpha of yesteryear, the reincarnation of Steve Morgan of Sweet Savage Love, except that unlike Steve, who was at least self-reliant, Max has a self-pity streak a mile wide. His lowest moment? Before he was a millionaire, “He had driven a used two-door Honda to work and was miserable.” (Poor baby. Let me loan you my used two-door Volkswagen. At least it’s European!) To him, women are “pretty accessories”, whom he uses as they deserve, for “sex, entertainment, or just boring dinner conversation” (with your subtle, nuanced view of human relations, I wonder whose fault that is, Max?). Nothing more to say there. Except that he has a deeply romantic way of coming through when the chips are down and his affair with Miranda is revealed:

“Do whatever you want with the information I just gave you, Joe. Just get the national media talking about something other than how much of a skanky whore the beautiful woman I love is. That’s all I ask.”

Do I need any more romance in 2008? I think not. I’m full up until at least 2009 with that line.

But what about Miranda? She’s a high powered, capable executive, right? Well, you tell me. She has a very bad morning, losing millions for her customers, and falls apart, walking around her office complex like a zombie with raccoon eyes, weeping copiously. At a meeting, by just looking at her, Max nearly brings her to orgasm, making her flustered and completely incoherent. And here’s a typical Max/Miranda interaction at a “business lunch” when he propositions her yet again:

“I’m afraid that’s impossible, Max. I’m leaving.”

“Not if I can help it.”

The nerve of this guy, manhandling her in a public place! Miranda was furious. She struggled to free herself of Max’s grasp. “Let go of my arm, asshole,” she whispered.

The couple in the booth across the aisle started to stare. Miranda felt her face flush — but not from embarrassment. As much as she hated to admit it, being manhandled by a handsome CEO in a public restaurant was damn sexy.

… but, before she could move a inch, Max tossed some cash on the table and half-led, half-dragged Miranda out of the restaurant. She stumbled behind him, teetering on her kitten heels as she struggled to keep up.”

But how does Miranda, our tough executive, deal with all of this?: “After all that had gone on with Max and her job over the past week, she decided she needed a new wardrobe.”

As an aside, the phrase “kitten heels” is mentioned so often that I looked them up. They are sexy low heels, with a thin, set-in heel. More here. As I was reading, I was thinking of a fun drinking game: do a shot every time (a) Miranda has an orgasm (she tends to have 4 in a row), (b) the phrase “kitten heels” appears in the text, or (c) the word “squidgy” is used. However, I decided by about page 30 that to do so would be to encourage alcohol poisoning and desisted.

3. The sex. What if the reader is not an obviously uptight politically correct academic? Is the sexxoring at least good? I’m not an expert in erotica, but I think not. And here’s why. (a) For erotica, there ain’t much sex. There’s a lot of mental lusting and only a few (like 3) actual sex scenes. (b) The sex is only sexy if you like arrogant men, genitals that have personalities which rival the hero and heroine’s, and purple prose. Here’s an example which showcases all three:

“Is this what you’re looking for, sweetheart?” he said, pointing at his very healthy, very prominent and obviously very excited prick.

“Yes.” Miranda breathed, feeling her nether parts swell and sweat with heady anticipation, her already throbbing clitoris screaming for the pull and push of his hard thick long member against it. The folds of her sex blossomed like a wet lily.

I fully admit I was not in the mood for the plotline of this book when I read it, but I don’t think I possess whatever mood might be necessary to appreciate writing like this.

Published in: on November 9, 2008 at 7:34 pm  Comments (24)  
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Review: Immortal Warrior, Lisa Hendrix

Cover Comment: Ok, this males only thing is no longer a trend. It’s a takeover.

Series?: Yes. This is Book 1 of The Immortal Brotherhood, Viking warriors cursed to be immortal were-creatures. Book 2, Immortal Outlaw, comes in 2009.

Setting: Early 1000s Northumberland, mainly in a castle and surrounding woods.

Heroine and Hero: Alaida, competent red haired virgin mistress of the keep at Alnwick,  future home of the great Alnwick castle. Known to the Normans as Ivo de Vassy, Ivor Graycloak is actually a Viking warrior cursed a couple of centuries earlier to live eternally as a man by night, an eagle by day.

Plot: King William of England offers Ivo a gift for his help, and when Ivo, tired of wandering for centuries, asks for land, he unexpectedly gets a wife as well. The plot revolves mainly around Ivo and Alaida becoming close while he attempts to keep his secret, but they do face external threats, both human and paranormal.

My Take in Brief: I found the setting unique, the premise compelling, and the historical detail fascinating. However, the plot was slow and the premise did not allow for much interaction between the h/h, who were not particularly compelling individuals.

Fun factoid: This is author Lisa Hendrix’s sixth novel, but her first foray into paranormal romance.

Word on the Web:

Book Smugglers, 5 out of 10

Literary Escapism, very positive

Yankee Romance Reviews, very positive

Amazon.com, 5 stars after 4 reviews (although, it must be said, one of these is Harriet Klausner’s)

The Racy Romance Review:

I wasn’t sure at first about mixing historical and paranormal, having only experienced Beyond the Highland Mist, which inspired my snarkiest review ever. Then again, I enjoyed the movies Ladyhawke and Highlander back in the day (and yes, I saw them both during their original theatrical run). And since originality is often a good thing in a genre that tends to sameness, I said yes when asked by the publisher if I would review it.

After reading many so called “wallpaper historicals”, in which a mention of the marriage mart and a curricle suffices to establish the Regency England setting, I wasn’t prepared for the incredible detail of Immortal Warrior. I’m sure specialists will have bones to pick, but every time I picked up this book, I felt like I was smack dab in the center of daily life of an early middle ages keep. The food and drink, the clothes, the relationships between servant and master, the language, the politics, the church’s influence, it’s all there. In its richness and in the way it was seamlessly weaved into the story, I would compare Immortal Warrior’s history to Outlander, which is, for me at least, high praise. (The one thing I caught was an emphasis on the importance of the queen in chess, which I believe she doesn’t merit until centuries later. I only have this in mind because I showed the Bergman film The Seventh Seal to my class last week, and he made the same error).

Here’s a little example, which gives you a flavor of Ivo and Alaida’s relationship as well:

“It is you.” His fingers closed around her arms, gripping them so she couldn’t turn to face him. He inhaled deeply. “That scent has tickled my nose all evening, but I thought it was the rush-herbs. What is it?”

What was this distraction? Brows knit in suspicion, Alaida sniffed, first the air and then, realizing what he smelled, at the sleeve of her chainse.

“Wormwood and rue … and tansy, I think,” she said, trying not to let on how distracted she was by the pressure of his hands. “For moths. They were on the gown I wore.”

“Ah.” He sniffed near her ear and it tickled. “I thought you might have doused yourself in some strange perfume in an effort to drive me away.”

“I had not thought of it. Would it work?”

“No.” Bending to the curve of her neck, he inhaled deeply once more. “I am not a moth.”

Another major strength of this book is the way the hero’s curse is portrayed. As a reader, I felt what a burden it is on Ivo. I would compare Ivo in this sense to the stoic, resigned, and dignified Captain Navarre in Ladyhawke. Unlike other shapeshifter books where this condition is portrayed as a kind of a mild kink, it’s very painful for Ivo to change over to his animal form, and it separates him from normal human attachments and patterns of living, making him lonely, and motivating him compellingly to accept King William’s offer of a bride.

I also liked Alaida, who knows the score — she’s a woman alone in 1097, not a modern heroine who expects to choose her own husband — and tries to make the best of her unchosen marriage, wielding power to keep her dignity in the ways she can.

Here’s an example:

“She is my horse, my lord. I will ride her.”

“Behind a groom, you mean.”

“No, my lord, nor with a man leading her. I ride her.” She dipped another plum apricot off the trencher and held it out to him. “These are very good. Would you care for one?”

The gesture caught him off guard. In the weeks they’d been married, not once had she offered him a taste of anything. Wanting to encourage this small intimacy before he questioned her further about her riding, he smiled and leaned forward, intending to take a bite. Instead, she shoveled the entire fruit into his mouth. It was swollen with honey and wine, and, as he bit down, it spurted so much spiced liquor down his throat that it made his eyes water.

As he choked and gasped, she leaned forward. His heart scuttered a beat or two as she smiled up at him.

“You may as well hear it now, my lord”, she said more sweetly than she’s spoken to him in weeks. “Not only do I ride without a groom, I ride astride. Wearing a pair of braies beneath my gown.”

I wish there had been many more of these scenes, but the two only shared dinners together, and, after the marriage is consummated, Ivo decides he cannot risk getting her pregnant, so he doesn’t even come up to bed until she is asleep for most of the book. I am one of those people who likes a lot of h/h interaction — not necessarily sexual, mind you — so the fact that so much time was spent with Alaida alone during the day and Ivo alone at night made the book less enjoyable for me. To be fair, I don’t know how it could have been otherwise, given the premise. The hero and heroine are likable, with many good qualities, and no vices at all, but are not particularly memorable as characters, and it’s not all that clear why they fall in love. Ivo’s attachment to his men, especially Brand, who becomes a bear at night, seemed somehow more intimate and enduring.

All of Ivo’s friends will get their own books, eventually. I’m hoping that subsequent books in the series will realize the potential I sensed in Immortal Warrior.

Published in: on November 7, 2008 at 5:27 pm  Comments (6)  
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“Come for me, baby”: orgasm on command

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Why is this phrase (and its variations) so ubiquitous in romance? You don’t believe me? Well, here’s a list complied ONLY from my bookshelf of maybe 30 titles. I bet you can think of many more.

1. Futuristic Romance: “Again” he demanded, dragging her head by her hair  and plundering her mouth. “again, goddamn it.” Naked In Death, J. D. Robb

2. Scottish Historical Paranormal: “You’re there, sweet leaf. Come. … Come for me.” Immortal Warrior, Lisa Hendrix

3. Romantic Suspense: “Yes, Maggie. Come for me, honey.” Giving Chase, Lauren Dane

4. Erotic novel: “Come for me”, he whispered.  Dirty, Megan Hart

5. Paranormal romance/Urban fantasy: “Come for me, Jane.”  Lover Unbound, J.R. Ward

6. Erotic Romance: “Come for me, then, Miranda, baby. Right now.” Market For Love, Jamaica Layne

7. Historical Romance: “Let go.” he panted, grazing his teeth across her throat. “Give in.”  To Have and to Hold, Patricia Gaffney

My main problem with it is overuse, but there are others I can mention. Like its use in a couple whose relationship doesn’t call for it. Its tendency to take me out of the story by thinking “Oh no! What if she can’t?” And the feminist objection that is too obvious to state.

Some romance mysteries are easy to solve. For example, we know the Dairy Council of America conspired with RWA to insert the word “milking” in every orgasm scene, with extra cash payments for the use of  “creamy” (which has made erotica authors rich, naturally).

But I can’t figure out how “come for me” became de rigueur. Did a memo go out from the Ministry of Heroine Hazards, warning of dire results if heroines are allowed to come without being told to? Or was it the Office of Alpha Hero Protection that issued the dictum (heh) that in order to enhance Alphaness, heroes must control even this aspect of lovemaking?

Use of this phrase doesn’t make me dislike a book: all of the above are in my house right now for a reason, after all. But I really feel it’s time to get creative!

Published in: on November 5, 2008 at 8:12 pm  Comments (32)  

A Change in Blog Policy

Readers of this blog know that one of my goals is to link more reviews together than is usually done. I think it’s unfortunate, in a way, that the online romance community has flourished as series of separate fiefdoms (blogs) rather than a big town hall (fora).  Thanks to Google reader and conscientious blog hopping, we do all manage to get around, but when it comes to posting reviews, they are often islands unto themselves.

The result is that, even on the big blogs where everybody can be found on one thread, conversations about books tend to be conducted the way some professors run their classes: one main speaker holding court and several students talking one at a time to her, but not to each other.

(more…)

Published in: on November 4, 2008 at 10:02 am  Comments (3)  
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