A Terrific New Release

Miranda Neville writes fun, sexy historical romance. In her latest book, the heroine is a widow. Diana Fanshawe married for money and position once, and now she has the match of her dreams in sight: Lord Blakeney, whom she has admired and hoped to marry since girlhood. While angling for Blakeney, however, she meets Sebastian Iverley, his bookish, socially awkward cousin. Her attraction to Sebastian doesn’t fit with her marriage plans; when she bets Blakeney that she can entrap Sebastian into a kiss, she gets much more than she intended.

Sebastian is a wonderful hero; he is unaware and inexperienced in a number of ways, not just sexually. He had a strange upbringing, without much affection, which means that he isn’t well equipped to handle the emotions that he feels because of Diana. Following the story of these two characters as they figure out love is a wonderful ride — their relationship IS the story, no spies or plotting villains necessary.

Secondary characters are always treats in Neville’s books. She creates really interesting and unique people for her canvas — Diana’s family, in particular is a wonderful collection of lovable eccentrics. And they are smart people, as are Diana and Sebastian. I can never get enough of intelligent characters in my fiction, and this book is full of them. Very highly recommended.

Refusing Ruin

Ruined, by Lynn Notage, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama

In May, I traveled with my mother to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; in addition to Hamlet, and some other fine plays, we saw Ruined by Lynn Nottage.  From the time I saw the title on Mom’s itinerary, I had historical romance in my head.  Then I saw the play, which is about women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, raped and abused by soldiers on both sides in the civil war. These women are cast off by their families, rejected by their husbands, considered unmarriageable and therefore unwanted, because their treatment at the hands of men has damaged them — their genitals are literally ruined, torn apart beyond function.  It’s a violent, painful play, and it really made me think about “ruin” as a device in historical romance.

Of course in most romance novels, “ruin” applies to a woman’s reputation or her virginity. Rarely do we see in romance the kind of violence that results in the ruin of a woman’s body.  But while the degree is less, the concept is similar —  a woman’s value rests in her reputation and marriageability.  “Compromised” women trying to salvage their reputations or contract marriages are a staple of historical romance; social ruin is the fate that awaits them if they cannot.

I had real trouble reading historical romance that seriously featured the idea of social ruin for several months after seeing Ruined.  I actually preferred books that treated the idea somewhat light-heartedly, because it was hard for me as a reader to put my head in a place where mere social ruin was something serious.  There are a couple of books I will probably need to try again when my head’s in a different place.  It wasn’t that I thought they were bad books, they just really weren’t books I could read at the time.

Two books were notable exceptions; each features the threat of the heroine’s social ruin quite prominently, and yet I enjoyed them.  In both books, the heroine chooses to be in a (very) compromising situation, but the man with whom she is caught has set up the discovery in order to force her into marriage.  And in both books the heroine resists being forced into a marriage she doesn’t want by the (very real) threat of social ruin for herself and shame for her family.  There was a joy in watching these heroines make their own choices and work out their own happiness in the shadow of ruin that reminded me how uplifting Ruined was too, in the end.

The first of these books was A Little Bit Wild by Victoria Dahl.  It opens with a bold, original scene: a young women being deflowered, and wishing the gentleman on top of her would just get it over with.  This is our heroine, Marissa; fascinated by men’s bodies, intrigued by the hints of sexual pleasure she has experienced, she engages in sex and then is disappointed by the experience. Even more disappointing is the realization that her partner in this encounter is determined that they must marry as a result. Indeed, this was his plan all along.

Almost as refreshing as Marissa’s honest curiosity about sex is her refusal to marry just because she has been compromised.  If she must marry (that is, if she is pregnant as the result of this disappointing experience), she will not marry the man responsible. Fortunately her family agrees, once they learn that it was a scheme to trap her into marriage.  Jude, a friend of her brother’s volunteers to marry her if necessary, and the rest of the book is devoted to Marissa finding her feelings for Jude while they work together with her family to defeat a blackmailer who threatens to expose Marissa’s ruin.

Marissa is a bit shallow at the beginning of the book, but Dahl uses her to invert a fairly standard romance device.  We often encounter a hero in romance who choose women based on certain physical standards of beauty, and who has to learn that the heroine who doesn’t meet those standards is nevertheless the woman he loves; in the process, he usually acknowledges that his original criteria were shallow.  Marissa goes through this same process, coming to realize that while Jude does not meet her ideal of male beauty and charm, he is in fact better for her than the men who do.  Along the way, she learns and grows, but she also calls into question the double standard of gender expectations:

My God, how stupid she’d been. How foolish and reckless. It must have been the wine. Yes, the wine. And the fine cut of Peter White’s new coat. And as he’d danced, his trousers had tightened over his thighs, revealing ever line of their … elegance.

Men’s legs were just so lovely. Slim and strong and exposed in a way that ladies’ legs never were. How could they expect that girls should not be affected by the sight? Gentlemen obviously intended to be admired, the way they flashed their thighs about, hardly covered at all in the tight cloth of their trousers.

What hypocrites they were, showing off their bodies and expecting her not to look. Or touch.

Marissa’s determination to marry a man to whom she is attracted is not unusual in romance, but her focus on what makes a man attractive to her, and her determination to have sexual pleasure, are definitely outside the norm.  Even though she regrets  being compromised, it is the lack of pleasure in the experience and the potential for social ruin that she really regrets.   Yet even faced with that potential, she remains determined to get happiness from her situation, rather than taking the socially acceptable option of marrying the man who compromised her.

In A Season of Seduction by Jennifer Haymore, the initial situation is similar.  Rebecca is a widow; she isn’t interested in marrying again, but she is interested in a sexual liaison with a man.  She expects to begin a no-strings arrangement with Jack, meeting him at a discreet hotel, but they are discovered just before consummating their plans.  Rebecca does not know that Jack arranged for them to be caught because he wants to marry her for her money.  Nonetheless, she refuses to succumb to the obvious pressure to marry in order to save her reputation.

Rebecca risks her version of ruin because she has already been married once for money and social position (and revenge).  She hadn’t planned t0 marry again at all, and although she agrees to consider marrying Jack, she is not prepared to sacrifice her independence to save her reputation and social standing.  She insists on getting to know Jack, and when she does agree to marry him, it is for love, not just to avoid ruin.  Of course Jack comes to love her as well, but he pays a hefty price for his manipulation when she eventually learns of it.

Rebecca’s effort to have sexual pleasure without marital entanglement is more focused and informed than Marissa’s. Marissa is exploring new territory, while Rebecca is trying to revisit familiar pleasure without the loss of freedom and of self that she experienced in her unhappy marriage.  She is willing to accept social ruin to avoid ruin of another kind.

Oh, Lord. Perhaps it made her selfish beyond endurance, but she couldn’t. She wouldn’t ruin her life yet again. Not even to show the world that she could hold her head high and take responsibility for her sins. Not even to end a scandal. Not even because this man could give her a life-altering orgams with just a few strokes of his fingers….She couldn’t traipse into marriage knowing she had so little understanding of the man she shackled herself to.

Rebecca will eventually have to forgive the man who compromised her in order to marry for love, while Marissa can continue to hate the man who tried to ruin her.  Haymore’s book focuses more on working out the complexity of that central relationship, and how Rebecca can ever trust Jack enough to marry him, while Dahl’s is more concerned with Marissa learning to accept a man who embraces her “wicked” side, who stirs her sexually and emotionally, but who views her with sometimes brutal honesty.

I certainly don’t want to overstate the similarity between these two books, but what really struck me was the way that both heroines resisted the obvious solution to their plight and looked for alternatives that would allow them to avoid the automatic price associated with sexual/social ruin.  Their willingness to separate sex from love, and to assess their personal worth in terms that challenge the standard values of their society, reminded me (in gentler, safer terms) of the bravery and resourcefulness demonstrated by the Congolese women in Ruined.

Start of a Very Good Thing

It is September, at last! I’ve been eagerly awaiting this month, because it marks the beginning of something I’m really excited about — The Blades of the Rose, a four-book series by Zoe Archer that’s coming out one book a month starting Tuesday. (It’s been available on Kindle for a week, though, and there have been some early sightings. I found a copy last week at my local Borders.)

This series is very different from anything I’ve read before. It is reminiscent of the Indiana Jones movies, as there are ancient artifacts, with magical potential, which our heroes are trying to find and protect from the villains who want to use the artifacts for personal power and glory (and, in this case, the continued expansion of the British Empire.) But the women in these books are very much equal partners, and the strong romance plots are interwoven with the adventure in each book. Best of all, we get a new couple in each book, and we see the couples from previous books still working together and loving each other as the series continues. The characters are distinct and interesting, with a different dynamic explored for each couple, and it’s great to see so many different ways that couples in this alternative Victorian setting can function as equals, balancing their individual strengths.

Each book in this series is set in a different locale, and each place really comes to life. The magical/paranormal aspects are very evocative of the feel of each place, and the details of scenery, climate, terrain and culture are vivid and involving. I’ve been fortunate enough to read and enjoy all four books in advance of their release; it says something that I am eagerly buying and reading each one as soon as it comes out.

These are the books I wanted when I got too old for Nancy Drew and Oz but found that most adventure books for older readers were really about the male characters, and the romances tended to be too easy and superficial.

The first book, Warrior, takes place in Mongolia. The heroine, Thalia, is the daughter of a Blade, a member of the secret society working to protect sources of magic from being captured and used against their native cultures. Raised mostly in Mongolia, she rides and shoots as well as a man; she is no polite English lady. She must work alongside Captain Gabriel Huntley, a newcomer to the idea of magic and the conflict between the Blades and the Heirs of Albion, who enslave whole nations by subverting the power of their native sources to expand the might of the British Empire. The son of a coal miner finishing a long stint in the army, Gabriel has no experience working with a woman as his equal. His language and manners are rough, and he doesn’t know how to deal with his attraction to her, her atypical abilities, or her determination to be in charge of their mission.

This is an excellent start to the series; it’s a satisfying self-contained adventure/romance, but it leaves you eager for the next installment. I found this romance to be the most simple of the four, because the obstacles Thalia and Gabriel had to overcome were almost exclusively external; they were connected by a sort of mystical instant attraction, and they were working together from very early in the book, so there wasn’t really anything keeping them apart. The threat to their romantic future is the threat they face to their lives; will they live long enough to enjoy the love for each other that they have discovered? Reading about them working together, facing the challenges and threats, is a great roller-coaster ride, and the Mongolian setting is wonderful. (I have a friend who is traveling in Inner Mongolia this week, and his Facebook posts each bring to mind a moment from Warrior.) Best of all, you get the start of a really fun, exciting and different series, full of smart, sexy men and women, magic, adventure, and romance.

What I Read in August

I’m still making my way through the pile of books I brought home from RomCon in July; there are five of those in this round-up, as well as four ARCs of books being released in upcoming months.  I also read a couple of short pieces, so the count for the month is 14 full-length books, one novella and one short story.

Historical Romance

(More than half of my reading this month was in this category. No surprise there.)

Lessons In French, Midsummer Moon, and Uncertain Magic by Laura Kinsale. I’m a latecomer to Laura Kinsale’s work, most of which was published during the period when I didn’t read romance. I enjoyed all three of these books. I appreciate the humor in all three, although there’s a lot of angst and plenty of punishing kisses, too. Midsummer Moon was my favorite of the three; I think that has something to do with my passion for inventors, engineers and 19th century science and industry. Livestock? Not so much my thing. And of course there’s the hedgehog!  WIN

A Little Bit Wild by Victoria Dahl. This author’s historical romances get better and better for me.  I loved watching Marissa figure out sex, and love, and the connection between them. I know that some people were put off by Marissa’s interest in sex  and her appreciation of things like foreplay and the male form, but I thought she was a terrific character.  Of course there are women who ogle men’s bodies (I follow several on Twitter, in fact), and I don’t think that suddenly began at a particular point in history. I’ve never believed that the double standard applied to men’s versus women’s sexuality just went unquestioned all through history, and it’s great to read a character questioning and challenging  it, even as she has to acknowledge that this is how things are.  Jude was a great hero, too, seeing the positive side of loving a woman with a wicked streak.  As always, Dahl’s secondary characters are interesting and fun; I found myself hoping they WERE sequel-bait. WIN

To Kiss a Count by Amanda McCabe. This is the last book in a trilogy; I didn’t have trouble following the plot, but I found myself wishing I had read the other books first just to get full enjoyment of the connections between them.  I think I will read them once I’ve had more time to forget the details of the recaps in this book. This is the first book I’ve read by this author, and I liked it a lot. There was some adventure, but it was all plausible and didn’t overwhelm the romance at all. I do love watching a hero and heroine work together, rather than against each other, as a change of pace.  WIN

Marry Me by Jo Goodman. This was an ARC of a book that is being released in December. I feel privileged to have read it early, and I will be talking about it in a lot more detail closer to its release date. All I have to say now is, WIN

Butterfly Swords by Jeannie Lin.  I have been waiting eagerly for this book, so I jumped at the chance to get an e-ARC from NetGalley.  My Goodreads response is cross-posted over at Dear Author. This book is available now as an e-book, and the print version will be released in October. WIN

A Kiss at Midnight by Eloisa James. I almost hate to call this historical romance, because the way James has played fast and loose with history is one of the things I enjoyed most about this book. This is the Cinderella story, and James has deliberately created a fairy tale setting, not a specific historical one. It’s just “once upon a time” — sometime in the past, like a Disney princess story. And I mean that in a very positive way! There are modern ideas, references to popular culture, and a definite feeling of familiarity in the midst of the “long ago/far away”that are similar to other retellings of this tale: Walt Disney, Rogers & Hammerstein, even Stephen Sondheim. It’s cute, funny, and very romantic. WIN

“Moonlight” by Carolyn Jewel.  This short story appears in the Mammoth Book of Regency Romance, and it is available to read for free from the author’s web site. You can download a PDF for free or read it on the site — even if you choose the download, be sure to take time to appreciate the artwork with the web version. It’s beautiful, and very evocative of the feel of the story, which is friends-to-lovers with a lot of sex. Two of my favorite things. WIN

Paranormal Romance

(It’s freaky that PNR is my number two category. Yes, my reading habits have changed!)

Angel’s Blood by Nalini Singh. I met Nalini at RomCon — she’s a bundle of energy and a really delightful person.  She was on my list of authors to try, and I decided to start with this book because it’s the first in her newer series.  Fabulous world building, interesting characters, and insightful commentary on the human condition. Isn’t that why one reads paranormals? WIN

My Immortal Assassin by Carolyn Jewel.  This is an ARC of a book that will be released in January. I was glad to read it early, because it has been too long between books in this series.  There are a lot of paranormal romances that feature a big, powerful, more-than-human hero and a more human, in-need-of-protecting, still-figuring-out-her-power heroine, and not every author can make that work for me. Power balance in relationships is a big issue for me as a reader.  Carolyn is among the handful of authors I trust in this regard, and this book is worth waiting for. WIN

Stranger by Zoe Archer. This is the fourth book in The Blades of the Rose series; it will be released in December, and it completes the primary story arc from the three previous books. Much as I hated to see it end, I thoroughly enjoyed the conclusion.  My favorite hero of the series is in this book (I am SUCH a sucker for a scientist/inventor hero), and we get return appearances (completely plausible, not contrived) from the couples in the previous books, too. WIN

“Alpha and Omega” by Patricia Briggs.  Yes, I finally got around to reading this acclaimed novella, because I found out it was available in digital format at a great price. Then, of course, I wondered why I had waited so long.  This was a truly moving romance, so I’m obviously going to have to read more Briggs at some point. WIN

Contemporary Romance

(I read only one author in this genre last month. Is that a slump? Must contemplate.)

The Next Best Thing and All I Ever Wanted by Kristan Higgins. The first Higgins I read was a RomCon acquisition; I didn’t love it.  I’m glad that the second one was a Smart Bitches summer book club selection, because otherwise I probably wouldn’t have read it, and I liked it much better.  Higgins writes in first person POV from the heroine’s perspective, and in many ways some of her books are more chick lit/women’s fiction than romance. (There’s a good discussion of this at Jessica’s blog.) Her books have a lot of comedy (love the blind date encounters!) and funny/awkward/bizarre details and situations.  The pieces didn’t quite come together for me in The Next Best Thing, PASS, but they did in All I Ever Wanted. WIN

Fantasy

(For years this was my go-to genre. I still love it, but there’s very little in the way of unread backlist for me to read betweeen can’t-wait releases.)

Clementine by Cherie Priest.  I somehow missed the release of this sequel to Bonecrusher, or I would have read it sooner. Steampunk done well.  *happy sigh* This book features minor characters from the first one, along with a terrific new heroine, and the world building is just fabulous. Alternate history is a passion of mine, and done well (as it is here), it may be my very favorite kind of reading. I’m excited that there’s another Clockwork Century book coming out at the end of the month! WIN