Smokin’ Hot Release Day

I have been waiting eagerly for release day for this book, the first of a terrific new series of smart, funny, intense erotic romance novels from Samhain Publishing. The author, Katie Porter, is the pen name for the partnership of two edgy romance authors whose separate historical romances I have enjoyed, and I very much liked their joint foray into contemporary erotic romance. In other words, WIN.

Double Down is the first book in the Vegas Top Guns series. The core group of characters are United States Air Force pilots, assigned to the 64th Aggressor Squadron. Thanks to Wikipedia, I know that the 64th is a real squadron, actually stationed at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas. Aggressor squadrons are teaching units; they “use enemy tactics, techniques, and procedures to give a realistic simulation of air combat (as opposed to training against one’s own forces).” (Wikipedia) The men, and woman, of the Top Guns know enemy tactics from having flown and fought against them, and although they are no longer deployed overseas, they are still taking risks in their high-powered aircraft. It’s a great setting for hot romance, because there’s a tension involved in the fighting, and in the need to train pilots well for their own protection, that goes beyond most domestic military deployments, but the characters are not under actual combat conditions. They have free time, and that time is spent in Las Vegas, a terrific place for anything-goes romance.

Erotic romance is tricky territory for me, but this book really hit my sweet spot (heh). Ryan has a thing for role-playing, but he is ashamed of his kink and does his best to deny it. Cass is looking to break out of her “nice girl” life, and pretending to be someone else helps her free up her naughty side. These two characters are hot together, and a sweet couple even when they’re having steamy hot sex; I wanted them to get together, but Ryan had a lot to overcome for that to happen. At one point I thought I was fed up with Ryan and his inability to accept his own sexual needs, and then a plot twist made his hesitation very real and believable to me.

The book really sucked me in; I kept finding myself torn between rushing ahead and savoring the moment. I liked the involvement and development of the secondary characters in the squadron, too; there was a real feeling of camaraderie and trust between Ryan and his friends, which felt solid in this book and made me look forward to the next. I liked these characters, and I enjoyed spending time with them. Plus the erotic scenes were not only written well, they were integrated fully into the development of Ryan and Cass’s relationship — not that I mind gratuitous sex, if it’s actually sexy, but this was even better.

Kudos to “Ms Katie Porter” for an excellent debut, and thanks for a great reading experience.

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July TBR Challenge Review: Island of the Swans by Ciji Ware

This month’s TBR Challenge theme is “How Did This Get Here? (a book you can’t remember how/why you put in your TBR!).” I have too good a memory, and my TBR is of relatively few years’ duration, but I did find this book that I had forgotten buying. It’s obvious why I bought it: being historical fiction set in Scotland and based on the life of a real woman, I probably thought it would work in a way that many Scottish-set historical romances don’t for me. It mostly didn’t.

Reading this book was an experience in expectations. I was reading the ebook version of the 2010 Sourcebooks re-issue, pictured above. Beautiful cover, right? And it definitely signals “historical” over “romance”; the dominant image is of the woman, with the pair of swans near the shore taking up the rest of the cover. It highlights that the book is based on the life of a real woman, Jane Maxwell, Duchess of Gordon from 1767 to 1812. The symbolism of the swans, who are monogamous and mate for life, is a pretty subtle romance reference. So I went into the book expecting it to be heavy on historical detail, (hopefully accurate), and knowing that the romance might not have a happy ending, since the author’s kind of stuck with what historically occurred.

The first section concerns Jane’s childhood and young adulthood; we learn about her family and her dearest friend, Thomas Fraser. They live in Edinburgh, although the Frasers are displaced Highland Scots. Thomas’ parents are both dead as a result of the uprising of 1745, and his uncle Simon is determined that Thomas will help him restore the Fraser clan to prosperity. Jane’s parents live apart; her father is a baronet, and maintaining separate households means that the family finances are stretched. So although Thomas and Jane are close from a very early age, his uncle and her mother are determined to keep them apart romantically, seeking more lucrative matches for each. Simon purchases Thomas a commission in a regiment of Scottish soldiers being sent to fight in America. Jane wants to elope before he leaves, but Thomas refuses; he says that when he returns in two or three years, he will be independent of Simon and then they can marry. They fight over this, but share a passionate last-minute farewell.

Word comes from America that Thomas has been killed by Indians, one of several Scotsmen butchered beyond recognition and buried in a mass grave. Jane is devastated, and has to be bullied by her mother and cajoled by her sisters into participating in any aspect of social life. She meets Alexander, the young Duke of Gordon, who is mourning the death of his mistress in childbirth; they have enough in common to become friends, and Alexander soon decides that he wants to marry her. Jane resists, admitting that her heart is still with Thomas, and delays as much as she can — she is attracted to Alex, but doesn’t feel ready to commit to him. Between him and her mother, however she is persuaded. Meanwhile, Thomas is not dead; he is recovering on a plantation in Maryland, run by a young woman named Arabella, who would very much like him to stay with her. She doesn’t send the letter he writes to tell Jane and his family that he is still alive, so when he returns to Scotland, the wedding has already taken place. Jane receives the letter while she and Alex are on their honeymoon, with disastrous consequences.

The romantic plot of the book is thus established. Thomas and Jane love each other, but she is married to Alex, whom she also cares for. Alex is unable to really be happy with Jane or trust her, so he alternately treats her with great passion and isolates himself from her. He also gets her pregnant a lot. Jane’s attempts to put Thomas out of her mind and focus on her marriage aren’t successful, at least in part because Alex feels like second best and therefore isn’t happy. Thomas periodically shows up in their lives, and each time it sets Alex off again.

All of this romantic back and forth, with honestly little progress forward, takes place against the background of historical events. Jane throws herself into society and politics because of Alex’s frequent bouts of sulking withdrawal, so many other historical figures appear in the book, and the time between romantic incidents is filled with events like the anti-Catholic Gordon riots (started by Alex’s younger brother), the literary success of Robbie Burns, political wrangling to bring William Pitt the younger to power, and the first bout of King George III’s mental illness. Thomas returns to America twice in the book, so we see events of the revolution and its aftermath there as well.

The two levels of the book, romantic and historic, didn’t flow together very well for me. It felt like I was reading two different books sometimes. While I finished the book, I can’t say I was particularly happy with it as either a romance or a history. The romance (forced to follow at least the outlines of Jane’s real life) could not reach a really happy conclusion. While I’m a big fan of middle-age second chances, and I appreciated the realism of the situation and some of how it was handled, I didn’t feel that the story was resolved at the point where the book ended. The book reaches a (rather abrupt) “happy for now” ending that, I suppose, was all the author could manage within the confines of biography.

As far as history, I was disappointed in the author’s note about her research and the book’s historical basis. She points out that there’s still no scholarly biography of Jane Maxwell and provides a lengthy lists of sources, mostly private letters and documents, which she consulted in her research. All well and good, but then she writes:

My goal has been to combine the facts that are known from the written record about Jane Maxwell, with intelligent supposition about what is not known. This biographical novel spins a tale about love and the vagaries of fortune that shaped the life of a woman of great achievement in an age that, in many surprising ways, set the stage for our own.

Although great effort has been invested in weaving accurate research into the novel concerning the linkages between the Gordon and Fraser clans, Jane Maxwell, and the period in which she lived, several minor chronological shifts and time condensations were made for dramatic purposes within this work of fiction. None, I trust, distorts the overall sense of the story as I have been able to unravel it.

That’s it. No identification of these “minor” changes to history, which means that as a reader, I can’t really judge whether distortion has occurred or not. That annoys me, and frankly I expect more transparency from authors who claim to have based their book on thorough research while acknowledging that they have taking authorial license. If I read another book by this author, it would have to be one with primarily fictional main characters.

One other thing that made my reading experience difficult in this book was the poor quality of the digital edition. Although I’m sure the trade paperback is lovely, the digital edition has formatting and typographical errors that were intrusive in my reading experience. The two repeated errors that I noticed most were the occasional center-justified sections, with ragged margins left and right, and words that should be spelled with a double f instead containing a tf (most frequently, “otficer”). I have never noticed before how many double-f words there are in English. Additionally, there is no link back to the Table of Contents from the in-book menu, which meant going back to check something was not an easy process. I actually checked my records to see what I paid for this book, and I was glad I got it for $2.99 (instead of the current Kindle price of $7.99), because the digital edition isn’t worth much more than that.

I have to share the book’s original cover, too. I’m not sure it would have given me more accurate expectations, but they certainly would have been different ones.

Self-Expression vs. Bullying: Wading into the Fray

I was away on holiday (mostly on a narrowboat on the Oxford canal) when the latest Goodreads-related dust-up took off, so I had to catch up when I got home. I’ve been sorely tempted to just stay out of it, or to limit my participation to “you go, girl” comments to those with whom I agree.* But after reading far too many threads full of head-nodding “they deserve it” comments of agreement with the stalkers, I feel the need to speak out.

The way I see it, people have a right to express themselves about pretty much anything, but being a consumer gives one a special right. If I buy a vacuum cleaner and it sucks — or rather, doesn’t suck the way it’s supposed to — I’m going to tell my family and friends not to buy that model, or even that brand. And if I bought it from an online vendor, I might post those same thoughts on the web site, because I’m going to get email asking me to do so, because I want to warn others, and because it helps me feel better about my bad experience to share it and maybe help someone else avoid a similar disappointment. I might even express those thoughts using profane language, hyperbole, humor, snarky attitude or any combination of those things, if that’s how I roll.

Should I expect the inventor of the machine to respond to my comment, telling me that I didn’t use the thing correctly, or telling me that I must be wrong, because of the dozens/hundreds of positive reviews from other consumers, insinuating that my experience isn’t legitimate? Or telling me that the manner in which I’ve chosen to express myself somehow invalidates my experience, so that the conversation stops being about the product and starts being about me and my right to express my opinion of something I bought and paid for? I don’t think so! Don’t tell me that his vacuum cleaner is his baby, and it hurts him to have me say that it’s ugly and doesn’t work for me, especially if I say it in a “mean” way. And if some other consumers join in to agree with my opinion, share similar experiences, or just defend my right to express myself, are we going to be labeled a gang of bullies, with poor Mr Dyson (or whomever) as the victim of our horrible behavior? Nope; not going to happen. Because it shouldn’t. And it shouldn’t happen on Goodreads, either.

I have had some experience of real bullying, albeit less than a lot of folks. My family moved to a new town when I was just starting the 6th grade, so I went to junior high school knowing absolutely no one. From day one, I was singled out by a particular group of girls — my hair was wrong, my clothes were wrong, my figure was wrong, and my intelligence was intolerable. Snide comments and teasing were hard to take, and when that escalated to threats of violence, I became miserable. I knew eight routes home, trying to avoid my persecutors after school, and I lived in fear. I didn’t tell my parents, because I didn’t think they would sympathize, any more than they sympathized with my misery over the move itself (I was wrong on that one, but at the time I was sure they would tell me to tough it out). All my teachers were men, as was the principal, and I didn’t trust any of them to believe me or take my concerns seriously, and I was threatened with even worse treatment if I told anyone. So I just kept my head down, ran home after school, and stayed home sick whenever I could get away with it. It was the worst year of my childhood.

That’s bullying, and that’s just not what goes on when a reader dislikes a book — even if she expresses that dislike in strong, profane or snarky terms. It’s not bullying even if a bunch of other readers agree with her, or defend her right to be as nasty and extreme in her opinions as she wants to be.  Because the author released a product for public consumption, and the consumers have every right to describe, discuss and share their experience of and reaction to that product. The author has no real place in that conversation, and authors who can’t handle those kinds of reactions should avoid reading reactions to their books, especially those conveniently labeled with a low rating.

I spent many years teaching theatre, and I’ve done a lot of acting, and I can tell you that not every audience member has enjoyed every performance. Nobody is a hit every time, and if I couldn’t accept that, and the possibility of negative reviews and comments, I hope I would know better than to go on the stage.  As a director, I’ve had my share of audiences and critics who didn’t understand or appreciate my work, but that’s to be expected. It goes with the territory, and anyone who can’t deal with that has no business in the business.  The same is true of publishing — if you don’t want to risk someone hating what you write, then don’t put your work out there for public consumption.  Or if you can handle the idea but you don’t want to have to hear about it, don’t read your own reviews (or only read the glowing ones); you don’t have to read what people say about your work, because they aren’t really talking to you anyway.

But if you DO read those reviews and comments, and you DO step into the conversation to try to “defend” your work or to object to either the content or the tone of expression, expect a harsh reaction to your intrusion and your defensiveness. You’re not being bullied if that happens.

*Here are a few links to folks with whom I agree:
Ann Somerville, “Why books are like toasters”
Carolyn Jewel, “A Modest Proposal”
Foz Meadows, “Bullying & Goodreads”
Sarah Wendell, “A Few Words on Reviews, Reviewing, and Bullshit”