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.