Elmore Leonard said: I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

Monday, 31 December 2007


It should probably come as no surprise that, in the year I spent more time than ever reading and writing about romance, I read less than ever before.

Looking at my list of reads over the past year, I’m struck by how underwhelmed I was by most of it. My favourite sub-genre is historical romance, but I only read a handful in 2007. On the other hand, I delved deeply into ‘vic-lit’ and greatly enjoyed the likes of Tipping the Velvet, The Glass Books of the Dreameaters (more a steampunk fantasy historical, but...) and the excellent The Crimson Petal and the White. I'm tired of 'wallpaper' historicals: one of the few I enjoyed was Lydia Joyce's well written and atmospheric Voices of the Night.

New authors I tried and liked included Lydia Joyce, Kresley Cole, Lynn Viehl and Shana Abe. Which makes me think that the paranormal/ fantasy elements in Romance are beginning to win me over. I have a stack of JR Ward's Black Dagger novels beckoning. Similarly, I'm awaiting the release of Meljean Brook's Demon Night before I dip into her much lauded Guardians series.

And so, without further ado, I present my Top 10 Winners and Losers of 2007

Best Reads (in no particular order)
Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Lord Perfect, by Loretta Chase
Shark Music, by Carol O'Connell
Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Walters
Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, by G W Dahlquist
Dirty, by Megan Hart
Voices of the Night, by Lydia Joyce
Smoke Thief, by Shana Abe
No Rest for the Wicked, by Kresley Cole
Indiscretion, by Jude Morgan
The Erotic Secrets of a French Maid, by lisa Cach

Worst Reads
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J K Rowling
Up Close and Deadly, by Linda Howard
Dangerous Lover, by Lisa Marie Rice
All About Men, by Shannon Mckenna
The Raven Prince, by Elizabeth Hoyt
A Lady's Pleasure, by Rennee Bernard
The Petrakos Bride, by Lynn Graham
Wedded by Contract, Bedded by Demand, by Carole Mortimer
The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes (not terrible, but very disappointing), by Crusie, Dreyer and Stuart

...And books I am eagerly anticipating in 2008
The Spymaster's Lady, by Joanna Bourne
Private Arrangements, by Sherry Thomas
Evermore, by Lynn Viehl
Queen of Dragons, by Shana Abe
Shadows of the Night, by Lydia Joyce
Dark Needs at Night's Edge, by Kresley Cole

... to name but a few.

Here's hoping 2008 is a more rewarding and entertaining reading year. Certainly, there are a number of books on the list above I am very excited about.

Sunday, 16 December 2007


I've just finished Volume I of Buffy Season 8. In comic form. Packed with all the wit and action of the TV series, it brought all my love for the series flooding back. It helps that a lot of the characters I grew to hate were largely absent (take a bow Spike, Kennedy and Anya). On the other hand, characters I loved were back with a vengeance - funny, capable Xander; sweet Willow; quippy, ass-kicking Buffy. Ah, good times.

Unfortunately, it also brought forth my latent shipping tendencies. In this case, Buffy and Xander. Or, Xuffy if you will. Bander?

Buffy's indifference to Xander - surely the most courageous and undervalued Scooby - has always been one of my biggest peeves. The guy is clearly devoted to her. Why can't she see that?!

The sad truth of the matter is, I cannot watch a show without shipping the characters. I am one of Those People. And I wish I wasn't, because I am very bad at it. There's always a strong possibility one half of any couple I ship will end up dead. Or evil. Or evil, then dead. Or headless.

Let me give you a few examples:

Angel and Cordy. We all know how that ended. DEATH (via treachery, under-age sex, demon pregnancy and character assassination).

Apollo and Roslin. This was one of the relationships that drew me into the series. Mary McDonnell is beautiful and amazing and generally awesome in every way. Great legs. Will she ever be paired with the young hottie Lee Adama? No, she's for his grizzled old man. Of course. The world would obviously explode in a fiery apocalyptic cataclysm if an older woman and a younger man ended up together in a popular US TV show.

Alex and Addy. What happened?! Okay, the stupid spin-off.

CJ Cregg and Sam Seaborn.
CJ: Sam, Sam, the sunshine man. Get on the couch, I'm gona to do you right here.
Sam: Okay.

House and Cuddy. This could happen. But would - obviously - end in disaster.

Michael and Sara. Now here's a perfect example of me shipping = grizzly death. RIP Dr Sara. Sniff.

I could go on. But I won't. The avid romance reader in me sees simmering attraction and UST everywhere. Seriously, I thought Scully and Skinner had a shot. Lorelai and Christopher. Paris and Janeway. Veronica and Leo! I'm hopeless. It ruins everything I watch and I wish there was a cure.

I will end on a high note. When things go my way, when the stars align, the payoff is sweet.

I bring you Pacey and Joey - the ship that began this whole sad mess. Damn you, Dawson's Creek!

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

A Follow-Up

Of course, it couldn't end there. Louise Allen has written a response to Julie Bindel's now notorious critique of the genre and Mills & Boon in particular.

Allen writes:
"All Mills & Boon authors, writing for the varied lines - a broad spectrum of contemporary stories as well as the historical novels - aim to meet the fantasies and interests of their readers within parameters they feel comfortable with. My heroes appeal to me - sexy, successful, strong men with a sense of honour and humour. My heroines - independent-minded, resourceful and far from submissive - respond to them in ways a 21st-century reader can identify with. That is not "patriarchal propaganda".

Bindel's words have sparked a fascinating debate all over the (romance) blogging world. In particular, I urge you to read the smart, provocative, thoughtful and challenging comments here, here and here. And here.

Daisy Cummins took the time to respond to my post below, which was very cool of her. Unsurprisingly, many romance writers were upset at Bindel's assertion they were writing misogynistic hate-speech. Go figure. Some readers felt the piece was patronising in its assumption that they were unable tell the difference between reality and fantasy, whilst others were willing to take a more analytical approach to the debate.

I wonder if anyone has approached Bindel with an interview request.

On a related note, on Monday The Guardian printed a letter from one Sam Shuttleworth enquiring:
According to a secondhand bookseller in Oldham, young ladies of Asian heritage can't get enough of Mills and Boon (100 years of heaven or hell?, G2, December 5). Whose opinion of the books, and their readership, does that confirm - Daisy Cummins's or Julie Bindel's?

I don't know what clumsy truths Mr Shuttleworth would like us to draw, but certainly 'young ladies of Asian heritage' form a large part of the M&B readership in the library service I work for. Having said that, as in Oldham, 'young ladies of Asian heritage' are a large customer base full stop.

To conclude, my own foray into the world of Harlequin/ M&B has ground to a halt at page 52 of Lynn Graham's The Petrakos Bride. There's only so much rampant masculinity, scorching black eyes (with the mysterious ability to turn gold at moments of extreme emotional turmoil) and overweening arrogance I can take from my reading material, and I can only assume that the Presents line is not for me.

Monday, 10 December 2007

The Darkyn Novels

I’ve been rabbiting on about paranormals for a while now, my desire to read a JR Ward (US edition of Dark Lover has duly arrived) and compare it to others in the genre. In the middle of all this prattle, I’ve managed to get unexpectedly hooked on a vampire series I haven’t heard much about in blogland. It has flaws (none of the books I’ve read - three so far - come above very solid B+ grades for me) but it works and the characters manage to avoid a lot of the pitfalls I find so frustrating in romance novels.

It helps, I guess, that the series doesn’t quite fit the ‘romantic’ label. It has strong elements of horror, suspense, fantasy and some science fiction thrown in for kicks. The tone is dark, gothic and not a little melodramatic (making a nice change from the effervescent Kresley Cole and testosterone fueled Lara Adrian).

If Angels Burn, the first in the Darkyn series, centers around Dr Alexandra Keller, a successful plastic surgeon in Chicago with the distinction of having ‘the fastest scalpel in the world.’ This earns Alex the attentions of a reclusive and mysterious New Orleans’s millionaire, Michael Cyprien. For Michael is a grotesquely disfigured vampire (vrykolakas for those of you in the know) desperately in need of Alexandra’s unique skills. When money won’t tempt Alex to New Orleans, she is snatched from the streets and taken to Michael’s underground lair, forced to perform a radical and unorthodox surgery on a man who regenerates within minutes and can only be operated upon with instruments made from copper. Appalled and fascinated, Alex reconstructs his face to its former glory and, in return, Michael almost kills her (bloodlust will do that to you). To make amends, he infects her with his blood in the faint hope that it will heal her, for Darkyn blood is poison to humans. Days later, Alex wakes up in Chicago with little memory of where she has been for the past week - and some very unusual symptoms.

From there, things only get more complicated as an angry Alex is drawn reluctantly into the dark and complex world of Michael Cyprian and the immortals known as the Darkyn.

How much do I like these books? Let me count the ways.

1. Alex. Here’s a woman who initially skates very close to the dreaded Mary Sue syndrome but somehow manages to steer clear. Alex has a successful practice in Chicago, she takes on pro-bono cases to help the poor and disfigured. Naturally, she is overly invested in her job, with little time for a personal life, although she has a causal lover who takes care of those needs when they arise. What’s great about Alex is that her profession is not something that is tacked on because the plot demands it and forgotten thereafter. On the contrary, that Alex is a physician and a scientist is an integral part of the character - it is evident in her response to Michael’s disfigurement, her reaction to her own infection and how she deals with it. The latter, particularly was an unexpected pleasure. Confronted by her imminent vampirism, Alex uses her medical knowledge to understand what is happening to her and control it. She is an active participant in the story and its progression - more so than Michael, in fact. She is - refreshingly - a skeptic. Where the Darkyn are overly superstitious (fitting for creatures of the Dark Ages) and melodramatic, she is pragmatic and logical:
[Michael] “God cursed us for our sins, and condemned us to walk the earth as demons, feeding off the blood of the living.”
[Alex] “Maybe you’re not cursed. Maybe you’re just infected with something extraordinary. Say two or even three pathogens that together altered your physiology on the molecular level. Something that made you evolve into another kind of human. If you carry that in your blood, then you can infect anyone.”

Ignoring the wacky science, Alex is a strong and unusual character. Far from being overshadowed and overwhelmed by her vampire lover, she is often in danger of eclipsing him.

2. The Darkyn. Viehl has clearly given time and thought to her vampires, providing them with a backstory steeped in the bloody history of the Crusades and an ambivalent relationship with God. On top of that, the Darkyn are a complicated lot, with tangled allegiances and entrenched customs. Michael is suzerain of the New Orleans jardin, answering to the Darkyn’s mysterious and rather creepy leader Richard Tremaine. Each Darkyn has a special scent - l’attrait - that can enthrall humans, and a psychic talent unique to each. As the series progresses, more is learnt of these talents, their physical traits and potential vulnerabilities.

3. The bad guys. These are the Brethren, a bloodthirsty lot of religious freaks (cliche!) loosely connected to the church. When I say bloodthirsty, I mean it. There is torture aplenty, and gruesome descriptions of death. The Brethren attempt to recruit Alex’s brother - a priest - into their order and John Keller’s ambivalence towards the Darkyn and the freaky Brethren is a running thread through the series.

4. Plot plot plot. There’s so much going on in these stories it’s sometimes hard to keep track. Each novel has at least one too many balls up in the air (often involving the tiresome John Keller), and what makes the stories so gripping - the frenetic pace, the tight plotting, the intriguing array of characters - is also its biggest weakness. At times, it is too much to absorb and I sometimes wished more attention was payed to the primary story.

5. The romance. Alex and Michael’s story does not end with If Angels Burn. This relationship continues to develop in the next two books, albeit taking a back-seat to the primary romance, and the struggle of these two ‘alphas’ to accommodate one another grows more fascinating as the books progress.
Moreover, no two couples are the same. Private Demon (2) has a gentle romance with two damaged protagonists whilst Dark Need (3) is darkly erotic and edgy. The change in tone and dynamics is welcome - there are no stock characters here.

I could go on. But for now it is enough to say that the Darkyn have pleased me greatly, sidestepping a whole bunch of cliches, whilst neatly subverting others. It’s particular strength lies in the depiction of its female leads (no blushing virgins, no doormats and no tstl moments to serve the plot) confident plotting, and a rapid pace that leaves me wanting more.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Rape embellished with meaningful looks?

Over at The Guardian, Daisy Cummins and Julie Bindel celebrate/ deride a hundred years of Mills & Boon. It's just another instalment in the regular love-hate tug-of-war between M&B writers and 'serious' feminists. And, of course, there are plenty of gaudy covers and choice snippets from back covers to besmirch the genre. Although, honestly, don't we shoot ourselves in the foot with the likes of "The Desert Sheikh's Captive Wife"?

Some pertinent points.
I consider myself a feminist. Not perhaps in the sense that my mother would have called herself a feminist. That fight was fought, and necessarily. For me, feminism means being economically independent; able to pursue the career of my choice without being thwarted; free to make decisions concerning my body, or my vote. I have never struggled with sexual discrimination.

My horror at the genre is not directed towards either the women who write or, indeed, read them. I do not believe in blaming women for our own oppression. Women are the only oppressed group required not only to submit to our oppressors, but to love and sexually desire them at the same time. This is what heterosexual romantic fiction promotes - the sexual submission of women to men. M&B novels are full of patriarchal propaganda.

Now, I am not a reader of M&B (though some of Tumperkin's reviews have tempted me to pick them up again) and I decidedly dislike the Presents line, but arguments like Bindle's patronising notion of women as willing participants of their own oppression drive me up the wall.

Misogynistic hate speech? Patriarchal propaganda? Er, not quite. A part of me finds it difficult to reconcile my love of romance with some pretty entrenched feminist principles (indeed, I have yet to 'come out' to my more strident friends), but there is a distinct line between reading escapist fiction and colluding with the forces of patriarchy. Right?

A recent post at Teach Me Tonight discusses the "inextricability of Harlequin romance from the ideology of democracy and capitalism." Laura Vivanco wonders if Harlequin Presents are "narratives of capitalist success." So if we can confidently point to a symbiotic relationship between Presents and the economic system underpinning Western civilisation, why not the social system that supports it? Of course, my perspective is one in which Patriarchy is still very much in force and will continue to be until women are earning as much as men, rape convictions go up and the leader of the free world is finally a woman (go Hilary!)

Capitalism, Democracy and Patriarchy? It doesn't sound too far fetched.

ETA: I take issue with Cummins "the fight was fought" and "I have never struggled with sexual discrimination." IMO, this is an extremely complaisant and short-sighted attitude, particularly since I believe the fight for equality between the sexes is far from over.

Sunday, 2 December 2007


What's a girl to do?!

Two years after its debut, I'm considering picking up a Black Dagger Brotherhood book. I've been on a paranormal glut these last few months and think it's past time I experienced this much discussed series. Even though these days all I come across are bitter, disillusioned ex-Ward fans with dashed expectations and stony hearts, there must have been something there to stir such emotions, to cause such a backlash in the first place. Like Buffy after season 5. My anger and betrayal was that much greater because I loved everything before the travesty of season 6 so damned much.

JR Ward has four Black Dagger novels on AAR's recent top 100 poll. She has a string of decent reviews over at AAR and Dear Author. Sarah at Smart Bitches calls this stuff crack. At Teach Me Tonight, Sarah G Frantz mentions the BDB is her favorite paranormal series.

Perhaps I should stay away for my own peace of mind, but I'm hopelessly intrigued. I want to know what the fuss is about.

Which brings me to my current peeve.

The covers.

Over here in the UK, the books have been released with covers dissimilar to what I have come to associate with the series. I like the US covers (see above) and I particularly dislike the UK version. Take a look.

The UK covers are awful. Still don't believe me? Look again!

Unh. I prefer the US versions. They are bolder, more striking and relevant to what I imagine is the tone of the stories. I don't want to own six copies of the crappy UK editions. But in order to gratify my own fickle notions of what is right and good, I will have to pay significantly more to buy from the US (shipping is murderous). Am I being ridiculous? Are the differences minimal? Quite possibly.

In my quest to find better covers, I went to JR Ward's website. There, the German editions caught my eye. So much better!

As I dither and pontificate over what to do, I can't help but feel let down by my country. In the past, I've felt rather smug about our covers. Take Eloisa James for example. Where my US counterparts had to suffer the garish absurdity of this:
I could buy the infinitely more tasteful:
And poor Loretta Chase. Some of her covers are deadly. Look at the US Lord Perfect...
How civilized the UK cover looks by comparison!
It's maddening that something so very petty is going to take a huge chunk out of my (potential) enjoyment of the series. Also, not to beat a dead horse, but just why are romance novel covers so bad? I can't help thinking that the genre would be taken that much more seriously if the covers weren't quite so garish. It would certainly make the purchase of these novels easier for me.

Off to sulk.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Bareback, by Kit Whitfield

This was the second of my two unexpected pleasures. And it couldn’t be more different from a gentle regency romp if it tried.

Not exactly a romance, although there is a love story at the heart of the novel, it isn’t precisely a paranormal either. Yes, there are werewolves involved, but the manner in which Whitfield tells this story - so prosaically and with such matter-of-factness - makes the extra-ordinary very ordinary indeed.

In fact, it is our heroine Lola Galley who is out of the ordinary. As a ‘bareback’ she is part of the minority: the 2% of the population born with a rare defect that makes them unable to turn.

Life is easy for the ‘lycos,’ or the majority. Once a month, on the full moon, they lock themselves up and 'fur up.' A full moon means something entirely different to the ‘nons’. They get to patrol the eerily silent streets and parks, on dogcatching duty. For there is always a were or two breaking curfew - the winos, the serial re-offenders, those wanting to roam free. And so the barebacks provide a valuable social function: they regulate the world when the werewolves can’t.

The reality of this existence hits you fast. In the first page Lola mentions her scars - ‘we’ve all got scars.There’s a deep slash running up the inside of my left forearm from my first dogcatch; a heavy dent in one of my hips from when I was twenty-two; a map of lacerations around my calves - and I’m a good catcher, I get mauled less than most.” This is normal. The maiming or death of a catcher does not make the news.

For the rest of the month, Lola works as a legal advisor for DORLA, the Department for the Ongoing Regulation of Lycanthropic Activity. There’s no choice involved; every non-lyco is conscripted into the service at the age of eighteen, where they are taught everything they need to know in their chosen field of work, plus administration, animal handling and marksmanship. Lola’s life could not be any more different to her lyco sister, Beth, with whom she has a strained and distant relationship.

The story begins with the mauling of Lola’s good friend, Johnny, who loses his hand on a catch gone bad. Lola is forced to defend his attacker, a lyco with a mean streak and a very patchy defense. A few days later, Johnny is shot dead. When a second DORLA agent is killed in a similar manner, Lola is left to solve the case before she becomes the next victim. Naturally her investigation uncovers anomalies, lies and deceptions that lead her to the very heart of the organisation she works for. Alongside this, she falls into a relationship that challenges all her closely held prejudices, reexamines her relationship with her sister and attempts to make peace with her own troubled and violent past.

It’s a paranormal, a whodunnit, a love story and a cautionary tale all wrapped up in a dark and unrelenting package of cynicism and gloom. In a nutshell.

This is Whitfield’s debut novel and there are many things to praise. The world building - so perfectly rendered that every fantastical detail seems normal and mundane. In her blog, Whitfield mentions how important it was that the book, set in a fictional city, seemed as local as possible to the reader. Thus, the US edition adjusts language and references to make it as un-jarring as possible. She deftly weaves historical and contemporary events and situations into the story, from the Inquisition to dealing with HIV, until you can’t tell where the unreality begins.

Perhaps the best thing about the novel is how the differences between the lycos and the nons is portrayed. Through Lola’s eyes, you see how she and her kind are percieved; as a social stigma, a family embarrassment, a ghoul and a bogeyman. “Be good or the barebacks will get you.” Lola wears gloves in public - no matter the weather - so no one will see her tender, uncalloused palms and know her for what she is. Nons live apart, socialise apart and work apart. They are feared by the general populace, representing terror, imprisonment and a draconian system of rule that falls outside the remit of the ‘normal’ world. When it becomes clear that nons are being targeted for assassination, Lola’s anger is bitter and fierce:
“It’s so perfect. Of course. They lay down rules that set us to guarding them from each other every month. We bleed and die and have to treat them with tender caution because if we hurt them the least little bit when they try to kill us, then the next morning they’ll rise from their beds and sue. For this they call us names and pay us nothing and let it be known that they despise us.”

But there is a flipside. We get to experience the brutal and unchecked power of DORLA. When a lyco is brought into the system, there is nothing to save them from violent interrogation or prolonged detainment with no charge. It's a two-way thing, a dark and symbiotic relationship.

This mutual fear and resentment is reinforced through the names they have for each other ‘barebacks,’ nons,’ ‘doggies’ and ‘lycos;’ through popular childhood nursery rhymes and cautionary tales.

Whitfield writes well, and powerfully. There are scenes of tenderness, of brutality and gruesomeness and it’s all held together by some very lovely prose and striking imagery: “I can hear his breathing dragging over his shredded throat like metal over stone.”

B+ for this. At 550 pages, it’s a long read but gripping and thought provoking.

Note: the US version of this novel is called “Benighted.” According to Kit Whitfield’s FAQ, the US publishers thought Bareback would give the wrong impression. Or something.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Indiscretion, by Jude Morgan

I read Indiscretion in one sitting and enjoyed it immensely. Partly because I had absolutely no expectations approaching it and partly because it was light, witty, smart and entertaining. What more could I ask of it?

Caroline Fortune has had an unconventional upbringing in the shadow of her rakish, unreliable father - a dandy, soldier, actor in one incorrigible bundle. Dodging debt-collectors and making do with less than desirable accommodations is second nature to her. So when her father confesses to losing every thing he owns, she determines to make her own way.

But Captain Fortune finds her an eminently suitable position - companion to the childless, fearsome and formidably rich Mrs Catling. They remove to Brighton, where the first part of the story takes place. There, Caro enjoys polite society and befriends Mrs Catling’s young relatives - Matthew and Maria Downey, and their good friend the elegant Mr Leabrook. Beautiful, pleasant and well bred, Caro is attracts plenty of attention in Brighton - but not all of it is welcome. Her time there comes to a climactic end with a dishonourable proposition and a personal tragedy.

From there, the story shifts to a small parish in Huntingdonshire, where Caroline moves in with her mother’s relatives and attempts to adjust to country life. In particular, she befriends beautiful and gentle Miss Isabella Milner and makes the acquaintance of her provoking brother Stephen. But trouble is soon to catch up with Caro and the story descends into a good natured comedy of manners as the past and present collide in a witty, Heyer-esque romp through regency England.

That’s the bare bones of the story. What I loved above all was the easy, flowing language, peppered with witty asides and a cast of characters - caricatures, certainly - that stayed true to themselves. Caro was a delight. Mature, composed and practical, there might have been an element of the dreaded Mary-Sue about her, but I cheerfully ignored it. Her reactions and feelings always felt true and real. When she is propositioned by a gentleman her response was so right, so what I thought a woman in her situation might feel I actually nodded approvingly to myself....
... she had been put in such a situation that no usual emotions seemed appropriate. There was anger, indignation, humiliation - yet none in a strong enough measure to be purgative. Her sense of self had been dealt the severest blow. If... had seen her as fair game, then was that how she habitually appeared? Did she bear some Cain-like mark that incited the adventurer, that roused the rake? Nonsense, said Reason: as well say the fox invites the hounds. But Reason’s voice could not always be heard above the clamour of self-doubt, especially when she fell into a melancholy wondering whether this kind of offer - the kind that was hardly distinguishable from an insult - was the best she could ever hope for.
Other great things - the dialogue. In particular, I loved the banter between Stepehn Milner and Caro. Behold -
“You are very silent, Miss Fortune.”
“Oh - I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be: I consider it a promising development.”
“Indeed: perhaps you can consider something else while you are about it, and that is how it is possible to be very silent , when silence is an absolute. You would not say that I was very perfect, would you?”
“No,” he said gravely, “I certainly would not say that.”
Jude Morgan writes with wit and assurance, and the story trips along lightly and irreverently. I know some reviewers fold down the pages of passages they find particularly repugnant: I do the opposite and, at last count, I had 14 pages marked for repeat reading. There are times when the characters and situations felt very familiar - oh, here’s Lydia Bennett, I thought. This must be Mr Collins. This guy is totally Col. Brandon... but what the hell. I liked it anyway. I liked it enough to order Morgan’s next book (sounds very much like Bath Tangle...)

I discovered after reading the book that Jude Morgan is in fact a man. I have no idea why I found this so surprising, except that most romances I read a written by women. I had no inkling until I went on-line and read the author bio. The book itself gave nothing away, but I am left wondering if my bemusement reveals a certain prejudice about men and romance.

Overall, a grade A from me.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Two Unexpected Pleasures

Although I have stuck ‘librarian’ on my profile I don’t physically work in libraries any longer, although I do work for them. As a result, the amount of time I spend there has dropped quite significantly, not least because I now prefer to buy my books. Last week, however, I found myself in a number of libraries for extended periods of time and discovered two excellent novels whilst browsing the shelves.

This is noteworthy because:

  1. I can’t remember the last time I came across a book like this. (It’s so old fashioned!) These days, I visit my favourite blogs/ review sites and pick up recommendations from reviewers I trust. I just don’t have the time to read books that merely sound promising - see monstrous and growing TBR pile. I need a little more insurance.
  2. I don’t visit libraries much, as mentioned, and since I tend to bulk buy online, I don’t really visit bookshops either. Thus, the simple pleasure of browsing rows and rows of bookshelves at my leisure has been lost to me. And it is a pleasure. I found some of my favourite reads completely by chance - the innocuous, clothbound I Capture the Castle, Regency Buck (my first Heyer), Little Women, Jo Goodman's My Reckless Heart etc

Anyway, browsing through the shelves last week I found
Indiscretion by Jude Morgan, a book I immediately began to read and finished the same evening. And then a few days later, Bareback by Kit Whitfield. I haven’t read this yet, but the first chapter was incredible.

All of which may sound very mundane, but it brought home the sad truth of my reading habits and how stale the whole process has become. Perhaps my ever-growing tbr pile, and my inability to confront it, has something to do with the lack of spontaneity and risk involved in my choices.

Reviews to follow.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Beast of Burden

My TBR pile is overflowing; quivering on the verge of insurmountable. It stares at me accusingly, an ungainly presence on my troubled conscience. etc.

This (sideways) pile is by no means exhaustive. There are books I own that I can’t even begin contemplating at the moment (Moby Dick, anyone? What was I thinking? That is definitely one for a long vacation). There are also the two books currently weighing down my bag - Murder on the Leviathan by the Russian writer Boris Akunin and Voices of the Night, by Lydia Joyce.

Now, I must admit I have seen worse piles, but not in my house. Never have I spent so expansively and read so slowly. I blame the blogs. There are so many great books out there, read and recommended by all and sundry, that I simply can't resist. Combine this with my trigger happy internet shopping 'problem' and there is no saving me from my own folly.

This is the list as far as I can tell:
  • Demon Angel
  • Demon Moon (These books have come sooo highly recommended I don't know why I keep putting them off. Anticipation? I think I'm waiting for the third to come out, so I can read all in a happy, gluttonous haze.)
  • Kafka on the Shore (Murakami)
  • Dead Sky (Hoag)
  • Duke of Sin (Ashworth)
  • The Devil to Pay (Carlyle)
  • Theft (Carey)
  • Cold Comfort Farm (Gibson)
  • Slightly Married (Balogh)
  • Simply Love (Balogh)
  • Slightly Wicked (and again)
  • Simply Unforgettable (I've never read a Balogh and went a little mad here...)
  • The Victorian House (Flanders)
  • Midsummer Moon (Kinsale)
  • For My Lady's Heart (Kinsale)
  • My Sweet Folly (Kinsale)
  • The Crimson Petal and the White (Faber)
  • If his Kiss is Wicked (Goodman)
  • Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Pessl)
  • The Inheritance of Loss (Desai)
  • Skylight Confessions (Hoffman)
  • The Editor's Wife (Chambers)
  • Absurdistan (Shteyngart)
  • The Plot Against America (Roth)
  • Consuming Passions, Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (Flanders)
Also - but not pictured
  • The Tin Drum (Grass)
  • Lady Audley's Secret (Braddon)
  • Not Quite a Lady (Chase)
  • Disobedience (Alderman)
  • Jane Eyre (one day...)
  • The Dream Thief (Abe)
  • Bliss (Cuevas)
  • Dance (Cuevas)
  • Moral Disorder (Atwood)
  • The Tent (Atwood)

Saturday, 22 September 2007

On Football (or "soccer" to the unenlightened)

I've had a general interest in football for a couple of years now, which has only recently developed into a fully-fledged love affair. I love the game (obviously) but there's the other stuff that I love just as much. I love the sports pages, I love the feuds and the history and the antics of players and managers both off and on the pitch. I love the tea-time football newsletter I get every weekday and my favorite football podcast and of course I love my football team (Manchester United - I know, know, but I love them, I can't help it!) and my favorite Manager (Alex Ferguson) and I loved to hate Jose Murhino; that dark, satanic, provocative imp. Ah, Jose, you will be missed.

This week I entered "Pick the Score," The Guardian's new predictions game. It's devilishly simple (which is a good thing). All I have to do is predict the score for upcoming premiership games. If I predict the score correctly I get 3 points, if I merely predict the outcome I get 1. Simple! So I joined belatedly this week and started with the average number of points accrued by the participants so far - 26.

My current rank: 9,514

Top score currently: 60

I've predicted my first set of scores and those games begin today. I have to be honest, I've checked the latest scores and it's not looking good. At this point if I can get my rank up to 5,000 I'll be a happy camper.

ETA: Congratulations to the United State's women's football team, who soundly spanked England in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. And to England, dammit, for getting so far.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

The Smoke Thief, by Shana Abe

Ten minutes into this book (I was on the bus, bored) left me enthralled and excited, as I feel when I know I’ve got hours of great reading ahead of me.
“Imagine a place so ripe and thick with the promise of magic that the very air breathes in plumes of pearl and gray and smoky blue; that the trees bow with the weight of their heavy branches, dipping low to the ground, dropping needles and leaves into beds of perfume.”

Isn’t that pretty? Overwrought, yes, but pretty!

Clarissa Rue Hawthorne is a halfling. A member of the Drakon tribe, living in seclusion among the green hills of northern England, she is a perpetual outsider in this closely knit society - for her father was a mortal. The Drakons are a beautiful and mysterious breed, with the ability to shift from human to smoke to dragon and back again. There’s just one problem; only a dwindling number of males can Turn and no woman has for generations. Thus the tribe lives in fear of its own extinction.

From a young age, Clarissa has loved Christoff, son and heir of the tribe’s Alpha, the Marquess of Langford. She loves in vain, however, as Christoff - older, beautiful, bored - pays her scant attention, sowing his wild oats among the impressionable young women of the tribe.

And so Clarissa contrives the impossible - she escapes the tribe (runners are hunted down and brought back without fail) and contrives to make a life for herself in London. As the Smoke Thief, she steals the brightest, most dazzling of jewels from the highest echelons of society.

Years later, her fame has reached the ears of the tribe, most particularly the new Marquess of Langford, Christoff, or Kit. Using the famed Langford Diamond as bait, a trap is set for the Smoke Thief. It is only when Kit catches Clarissa that he realises the thief is a woman - and she is the only drakon female alive able to turn. This makes her the female Alpha and his mate.

From there, the story twists and turns, revolving around these compelling characters and their passionate, absorbing relationship.

I don’t think Abe strikes a wrong note throughout the book, sustaining elements of romance and fantasy and adventure in a very particular time and place (18th century England). Her writing is assured and poetic, her dialogue never jars. I gobbled up the book in one day and immediately went on-line to order the next. (To my disappointment, the third in the series is out next spring, not as Amazon claim in December).

What did I like? Everything! Kit - his golden hair and sleepy green eyes; an Alpha in the true sense, without resorting to the ass-holism so often synonymous with the term. He is the leader of his tribe, and this is an integral part of him; his duty to the tribe and the sacrifices he makes for its greater good have shaped him.

Clarissa (or Rue) is the perfect mate for Kit - strong, brave, loyal and smart. Her decisions are logical, her desire for freedom and autonomy real and valid - indeed, I was utterly indignant on her behalf when this freedom is threatened by the tribe. Often novels have heroines acting wildly out of character to serve the plot - didn’t happen here. Rue is great. My only quibble was with her great and unearthly beauty, but all drakon are beautiful, so I suppose I have to let that go.

The dragon aspect is well done. Abe skillfully avoids the cheesy and creates magical, wondrous creatures of beauty and grace. Rue and Kit’s first flight - more of a midnight chase - is high octane, thrilling, brutal.

What a wonderful surprise this book was. I haven’t read an A-story in months. Highly recommended!

(As an aside, there are some excellent reviews of this book out there, on the big wide web. I recommend Dear Author as one such place).

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Match Me If You Can, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

I’m a huge SEP fan and have been for years. YEARS. I read my first one when I was school all those years ago... she’s consistently smart, funny and her characters are alive. Larger than life, brash, unrepentantly outrageous.

So why did I put this book off for an entire year?

Her last two left me feeling a little flat. Writers evolve, grow in confidence and skill, become more serious. In her last couple of books, I think SEP toned down the high camp of her earlier novels, giving her characters more maturity and self-awareness. Which is fine but, necessarily, some of the dramatic tension, the highs and lows of a roller-coaster romance are also missing. In its place was more of the earnestness, the self-growth, the finding-yourself-in-your-lowest-moment stuff that is always central to an SEP novel. Whilst enjoyable, I was left feeling a little unsatisfied.

So does this latest - a return to her popular Chicago Stars series - turn things around?

Annabelle Granger is a professional matchmaker. Her small struggling company - Perfect for You - desperately needs business and that’s where Heath Champion(!) comes in. Heath is a very successful sports agent and the hottest bachelor in town. Wealthy, driven and gorgeous Heath is Annabelle’s polar opposite. For - of course - Annabelle is a bit of a flake. Her life is as unruly and out of control as her wild red hair. She is the disappointment of her uber-successful family, the perpetual failure. What saves Annabelle from annoying the hell out of me is her very droll sense of humour and her amusing sparring bouts with Heath.

Annabelle manages to (very cleverly) trick Heath into hiring her services. Heath’s looking for Mrs Champion - refined, beautiful, upper class, the very antidote to his humble beginnings - and Annabelle brings him fresh candidates to consider. Heath insists that Annabelle sit through every introduction and thus their odd, quirky relationship begins. Indeed, thinks Heath,
If Annabelle were a few inches taller, a hell of a lot more sophisticated, better organised, less bossy and more inclined to worship at his feet, she’d have made a perfect wife.

The good: My favourite romances are the ones where I don’t want the verbal foreplay to end. When the flirting, bickering, falling-in-love-and-not-knowing goes on and on and I just love it. This was perfect. Heath and Annabelle had a great, fizzing chemistry, sparkling repartee and the whole friends to something more was handled with just the right touch. And how great was it that they were friends first? (I’m reading some Shannon McKenna short stories at the moment and I think my eyes were starting to bleed...) Pretty damn great. These two, the reader thinks, fit in more ways than good old sexual compatibility.

The bad. Well, I would say this begins when Heath and Annabelle start to get serious about their feelings. From this point on, it’s all self-doubt and denial and angst. As per practically every SEP book in existence, the heroine can’t believe that the hero loves her and throws his declaration back in his face (how many times does SEP use this device? How many times has the hero publicly declared himself, only to be rejected and humiliated?) There is that moment of self-realisation when the heroine thinks “I DESERVE to be LOVED” and, of course, there is much abasement of the hero before she gets that yes - YES - he really, really loves her as she so rightly DESERVES to be LOVED.

Unh. After the fizz and crackle of the first two thirds of the book, this was a real downer.

The other thing that brought me down were all the visitors from previous Chicago Stars novels. This is such a tired device, the author really milking her franchise - buy the other books, buy the other books! At one point, as the women approach their men, Phoebe murmurs
“Welcome to the Garden of the Gods, ladies.”

I mean, come on! The premise - that footballers are smart, articulate, romance novel material - is shaky enough to begin with. When they stand together - Gods among men - I felt my credulity stretched beyond repair.

The secondary romance - featuring a rival matchmaker and Heath’s friend - was tacked on and slightly jarring even though there is a very funny bit at the end that had me snorting to myself.

Overall, a solid B.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Dangerous Lover, by Lisa Marie Rice

This book came dangerously close to becoming a wall-banger. Unfortunately I bought it as an ebook and, well, I didn’t hate it enough to toss my MacBook.

So here’s the premise. Ben is a homeless kid in love with the lovely young girl who visits the shelter in which he resides with his father, an unlovely drunk. Caroline is everything beautiful, kind and generous; dispensing bounty like a latter day Mother Theresa, and Ben loves her with an unhealthy intensity. The night Ben’s father kicks the bucket, Ben resolves to see Caroline. It’s Christmas eve and I’m not entirely sure what Ben intends to do, but he is a young man of Resolve and so he trudges through a snow storm to his beloved’s house.

Witnessing Caroline from the window, in the loving bosom of her elegant, wealthy family, smooching with a handsome blond stranger, Ben decides to disappear into the night, never to return.

Six years later. Ben is now Jack Prescott, a lean, mean man of war. A veteran of some of the most nasty war zones in the world; Iraq, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone - truly, the trifecta. Jack’s been sorting out a nasty mess in Sierra Leone, killing some bad guys and selling off the security company his late foster father (young Ben found himself a kindly colonel) left him. A free agent, he resolves to find the young woman who so haunted his dreams in the intervening years - the woman he could never forget, even as he fucked his way through countless other women; never committing, but satisfying his manly urges with one night stands (or three nights - if he really liked them) and his best friend, Mr Right Hand.

Life hasn’t been all that great to Caroline, we soon learn. Her parents died, leaving her poor and debt-ridden. Her brother, surviving the crash that took her parents, lived on for six years but as a cripple. Alone now, caroline runs a bookstore - purely on whimsy as it doesn’t get any business (seriously - huh?), and struggles to make ends meet by having lodgers in her beautiful old house - beautiful but falling apart, naturally.

Jack finds out that Caroline is single, poor and in need of a lodger and makes his move. Pretty soon (and I mean, PRETTY SOON), he’s in her home and her bed. There is much sex and angsting. Naturally, Jack tells her nothing of their shared past and his unwholesome obsession with her; he tells her nothing of his more recent past either, so later on there can be all sorts of misunderstandings and ‘tension’ and shenanigans.

Here’s my first and major problem with the book: almost all of it is internal musing, endless retrospection and soul searching. Worse - and SHAMELESSLY - there are pages and pages of info-dumping; exposition on a grand scale. Shameless because - ugh! - it’s lazy! it’s boring! it’s endless! It makes the story drag! We get 2-4 pages of back story, a page of dialogue and then a little sex, to perk things up. That’s the formula, and Ms Rice sticks to it.

Next, the secondary plot. Presumably tacked on to add some element of ‘suspense,’ this revolves around one of the bad guys Jack thought he took care of in Sierra Leone reappearing to steal back the diamonds Jack took away with him. This bad guys gets loads of storytime, but he is a cliched romance-land villain; pure E-vil, so scheming and fiendish and cartoonish I ended up skipping his bits. So don’t ask me.

Some of the writing is overblown and eye-rollingly earnest. Here’s what Jack had to say about the diamond trade:

...An entire country was tearing itself apart because of dull rocks just like these—over eighty thousand people killed over the past year in Sierra Leone. Countless others had had their hands, lips and ears chopped off by the drugged-up baby soldiers fighting in the Revolutionary Army....

No wonder they called them blood diamonds. It was a miracle that no blood oozed from the stones. But no—they were as neutral as they were inert—just rocks, for fuck’s sake. Just rocks...

Yep, Jack’s a deep guy. Here’s some more wisdom.

“It’s a bad world out there, Caroline,” he said gently. “You have to be prepared.”

Fuck, but that was true. He’d seen it, he’d lived it. In the shelters he’d grown up in, a beauty like Caroline would have been raped the instant she’d reached puberty, probably even before. In Afghanistan, she’d have been dressed in a head-to-toe burqa and beaten if a man could hear her footsteps. There, too, she would have been raped, with the added pleasure of being sentenced to death for fornication. In Sierra Leone—Jack’s back teeth ground together. He’d seen the shattered remains of the women who’d fallen into the hands of the Revolutionary Army. Death for them had been a release.

Blimey! Good job she’s a middle class white woman living in the West.

Notwithstanding the nonsensical political claptrap, there’s also the perpetual hard-on Jack carries about in his tight jeans, his inability to tell an emotion apart from a heart attack (“Fuck, maybe he should see a cardiologist”) and Caroline's unremitting Mary Sue-ness. For, of course, Caroline is truly perfect; beautiful, plucky, feminine, gentle, well bred, honest and fair. Verily, an angel come unto the earth to spread her light.

I read the book feeling as though I’d read it all before. Jack is supposed to be a taciturn hard man, a man of few words but great depth, brought to his knees by a beautiful damsel in distress. I found him boring, and so - I get the feeling - did Caroline.

“It was humbling to think that her body wasn’t paying any attention at all to what he was saying, what books he might have read, what his politics might be.”

Good job Caroline has that massive ding-dong to keep her entertained, because the internal Jack is a bit of a windbag.

C- Were it not for the relentless exposition, I think this book would have been a lot better.

Friday, 20 July 2007

I Hate Harry Potter

It’s true, I hate him. Whiny, annoying, loathsome boy. I hate Ron. What an idiot. Ron is a fool. Hermione I like. She does not deserve to end up with a fool. At the very least, Hermione ought to be with the series’ hero, even if it is Harry Fucking Potter with his incessant carping and his - roll eyes - destiny and his swollen sense of entitlement.

I love Snape, of course. I think I could live with his being evil if he got to spank Harry, even a little. The only thing that would upset me is his death. So don’t do it, Rowling!

Why do I read the damn books? Reader, I cracked. I think it happened just after book 6 was released. My friend Veronica had given me the first few as a present and for years I ignored them. Then, one day I picked up HP and the Philosopher’s Stone. After an excruciating start I found myself following the story, reading it in a gulp. The rest followed.

I hate Harry; I hate Ron; I hate the simplistic black and white morality (I’m rooting for Voldemort. Maybe Hermione could become his Dark Queen/ child bride?), but I like the books and I’ve enjoyed the series. I’m going to get my book tomorrow morning, Amazon willing, and I’m going to do my damndest to stay in bed until it’s finished. I can’t wait.

The First Time is the Hardest

It’s 2007, I’m 25 and in possession of a spanking new MacBook... the only question is, why didn’t I do this sooner?

Well, lot’s of reasons. Primarily, my life does not a lively, must-read blog make. We’re not talking The Intimate Confessions of a London Call Girl, or the Internal Musings of a Troubled Genius. More like, The Distracted Ramblings of a Timid Librarian. And if you want to know what I look like (ignore my alter ego in the profile for a moment, the gorgeous lady Colin Campbell), imagine a slightly quizzical sheep. Or - depending on the context - a mildly terrorized sheep. Or a hungry sheep.

Yes, it’s a bandwagon; yes, I’m leaping abroad.

And did I mention? I have an unhealthy obsession with romance novels, which I will attempt to review in this here blog.