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.''

Wednesday, 17 June 2009


Ever since I read and greatly enjoyed Voices of the Night, I’ve always intended to review a Lydia Joyce. Unfortunately, following a strong start, Shadows of the Night became a rare DNF (major let down) and I didn’t want to write a bewildered negative review when there’s so much about Joyce’s style and content that I enjoy.

So I bought Wicked Intentions in the hope that what I loved so much about Voices would be recaptured and sustained.

Joyce writes a series of loosely connected Victorian romances, set in the mid-Victorian era and positively steeped in the dense, oppressive atmosphere of that time. Instant winner for me, as I absolutely love those repressed Victorians. What I enjoyed particularly in Voices was the way in which she mixed the grim realities of Victorian Britain with a romance that worked within that context – a sort of grim, desperate love story that suited the moody, heavily mannered world of her characters.

In Wicked Intentions, Joyce retains her dark and dreary London setting with a most excellent starting chapter, which set the tone for a really meaty, angst-ridden romance:
In Parliament’s new limestone palace, already damp and lichenous where it crouched beside the stinking Thames, debate raged. And so the season limped on, with the endless rotation of dinners, dances, operas and soirees, accompanied as always by the constant, grating murmur of politics and gossip, marriage and legislation, secret cabals and open scandals that took place in the myriad stifling rooms.

I love the visual of Parliament crouching besides the stinking Thames.

Our hero Thomas Hyde, Lord Varcourt is introduced in a parlour setting, amidst his fellow aristocrats, and notes:
The world was made and unmade in rooms like this, and already, Thomas could begin to read the threads that went into its making. Soon he would have enough gathered into his hands that he could pull them and watch men dance…

Yes. So Thomas fancies himself a puppet master of sorts, steeped in political intrigue, sniffing out secrets for the advantage of the Whigs. He is regarded with wariness by his peers following the suspicious death of his older brother some six years earlier.

In the same parlour sits the mysteriously veiled spiritualist, Esmeralda, without whom a fashionable parlour is incomplete:
Esmeralda heard the dead, she claimed, and saw visions – and collected like pearls the secrets of the noblewomen who confided in her.

She is nothing but a charlatan to Thomas, who watches her, infuriated and reluctantly fascinated. Esmeralda’s biggest patron happens to be his mother, whose fragile mental state he believes Esmeralda is manipulating to her own mercenary ends.

For a man like Thomas, who sees schemes and plotting everywhere, Esmeralda is an unknown quantity, a threat. So when she leads his mother to the ‘discovery’ of an expensive piece of jewellery, he is roused to action and pursues her for answers.

This is an excellent set up. In fact, the first chapter was a masterpiece of brooding repression and angst.

Unfortunately, every chapter thereafter saw my interest dwindle. Is there such a thing as too much melodrama? Despite the fact that both characters carry the sort of emotional baggage that makes a Thomas Hardy novel cheerful by comparison, there was something unrelenting about the dialogue, particularly between Thomas and Em who love to make grand and sweeping statements to each other.
“I could kill you,” she said, her words almost wistful. “I don’t mean that I have the power but that I have the will, a far more difficult thing. People sometimes wonder if they are capable of taking a life. I know that I am; I almost took my own. After that, life itself seems so insignificant.”

On it’s own, this is a little rich. But when every interaction between Thomas and Em carries the same level of hysterical intensity – well, intensity leaves the building. What’s left are two people who take themselves far too seriously.
Thomas saw an emotion behind the glassy clarity of her eyes: pain. It was as distant as a star, and yet he knew that if the distance could be bridged, the vastness of it would dwarf his being, the heat sear the flesh from his bones. It was turned not on him, but inward, and he wondered what stuff she was made of that she could survive it…

Puppet master Thomas, for all his brooding darkness and supposed political acumen, spends the entire novel acting on impulse; from kidnapping Em, which leads to their first brutal sexual encounter; then kidnapping her (again), drugging her, tying her up, and accosting her pretty much as the need arose… these were not the actions of a sophisticated thinker. There’s never any evidence of the operator we are supposed to believe him to be.

There are two mysteries in this story; the truth behind the death of Thomas’s brother, and the mystery of Esmeralda’s stolen birthright. Neither of them are precisely gripping, and the story is essentially a series of encounters – all turgid, overwrought and overwritten – between Thomas and Em in the lovingly created settings of Joyce’s Victorian London.

A disappointing C for this.

Two Caveats
1. For some reviewers the sex scenes were a too dark. These did not bother me; in fact, I thought the relationship between Thomas and Em was best expressed through their physical interactions, better by far than their ridiculous conversations.

2. I bought this book to read on my iphone. Big mistake. I really didn’t enjoy the experience and I wonder if part of my irritation stemmed from the dissatisfaction I felt with the format. iphone as reading device: FAIL.

Sunday, 14 June 2009


What a pleasure to read a book as beautiful as it is smart. Seriously, what resides between the covers of The Edge of Impropriety is a match for the cover itself; a gorgeous, sensual rendering that reflects the story without resorting to the garish, demeaning, lowest-common-denominator trashiness I so despise and despair of. Let’s hear it for Penguin, who Got It Right. (Anti-man-titty rant of the month over.)

In short, it was a pleasure to own this book and a pleasure to read it, for no more reason than its physical perfection. This is a very shallow way to start a - mostly serious – review but the very act of reading The Edge of Impropriety put me in a good mood. I was predisposed to love this book.

More so because I am a secret admirer of Ms Rosenthal, a smart and thoughtful writer and blogger. Her last book was one of my best reads of 2008.

Even the fact that I wasn’t immediately immersed in the story – indeed, it took me a week to get past the first chapter – didn’t unduly upset me. The writing was beautiful, the setting unusual, the premise intriguing. I can be patient. Particularly when the writing is so good, and the cover is so beautiful.

Jasper Hedges is a noted scholar and antiquarian, which is pretty much as exciting as it sounds. In order to compensate for some youthful indiscretions (his orphaned nephew, for example, is actually his son), Jasper has settled into a life of bucolic responsibility, a steady, perhaps even somewhat boring authority figure to his young wards. A rare trip to London brings him into contact with the beautiful and scandalous Marina Wyatt.

Marina writes scandalous stories about the ton and is savvy enough to encourage speculation that these stories are based on her own titillating experiences. To wit, she has recently rebuffed her latest lover, the young and obscenely handsome Anthony Hedges – Jasper’s ‘nephew.’

When their paths cross, Jasper and Marina are instantly attracted to one another, despite their many obvious differences. They embark on a passionate affair, purely for the length of the season, and struggle, unsuccessfully, to keep their feelings checked.

Jasper and Marina’s relationship develops from strong physical attraction, liking and mutual respect to love in a wonderfully natural way. The fact that they are older than the usual heroes and heroines of romance – 30s and 40s respectively – might partly explain their refreshing maturity, the freedom from angst over the silly things. They both take an uncomplicated pleasure in each other’s bodies, for example. A secondary romance involving Anthony is a pleasant and diverting contrast.

The real star of the story is the story-telling. Rosenthal steeps the reader into her early 19th century London. She is assured enough with her description of artefacts and classical references that I can’t easily find fault, and her seamless bringing together of cultural references and historical events, coupled with pretty authentic sounding ‘regency speak’ left me beaming. Rosenthal is particularly dazzling when she details the minutia of the London Season, that ‘rich tapestry of event and festivity.’

There is a particularly wonderful passage halfway through the novel - halfway through the Season - when Rosenthal takes the reader outside the lives of her characters and casts a sweeping gaze over London itself – the ladies maid ‘squinting by candlelight;’ ‘the kitchen slavey in Gunters;’ ‘ink-stained wretches in Grub Street.’
“Shopkeepers stayed open late; hackney drivers jostled for place in front of the opera. Bow Street Runners did their best to police a metropolis most people didn’t believe need policing. Parliament were still debating the possibility of an actual police force, though there were still some who thought the idea too foreign, too French a notion for London.”

The Edge of Impropriety is stuffed with sly nods and winks to historical figures, events, and literary references. Jasper’s past plundering of historical artefacts is examined, as are the politics of imperialism (too modern?); there is even meta-commentary in the form of a young would-be writer. And a delightful little passage that made me laugh out loud:
… “Well, yes,” she’d said one evening. “Absolutely, Empire is like theft. But then, I’m Irish.”
Which, as he’d been about to respond, wasn’t the same thing at all, Ireland simply being a part of Britain…

It’s always interesting when a writer creates a character who is also a writer. I couldn’t help but wonder how much of Marina-the-writer came from Rosenthal herself: the growing boredom with the work she is doing (Rosenthal herself is moving away from straight romance), and even Marina’s introduction at the very start of the novel, when she laboriously correcting proofs.

I finished The Edge of Impropriety happily enough, but a nagging voice in my head wondered – did the excellent writing compensate for a tepid romance? Or did the quality of the writing draw attention to the paucity of the romantic plot, which did nothing wrong, except perhaps follow too closely the formula of all romances. For, despite everything, Rosenthal took no real risks with her story. With such tools to hand, such assured skill, I wish Rosenthal had strayed into less formulaic, more unchartered territory.

But the cover! The writing! The sly humour, the secret affairs; the clever in-jokes and the general feeling of having read a book that required my concentration to be fully enjoyed…

B+ from a hopelessly biased reader. I look forward to whatever Rosenthal has planned next.


The February Book Club is the brainchild of Tumperkin, who thought we might review and discuss select romances between us. Us being Jessica, Tumps, RfP and myself. Flattered to be counted amongst such illustrious bloggers (in all seriousness), I was quick to agree. However, our ambitious February launch date was thwarted by that fickle thing 'life' and we commenced many months later.

To read what the other members thought of this book click on the links below




Monday, 13 April 2009


Over the weekend, thousands of books have lost their sales rank – the number that Amazon uses to show how well one title sells compared with another – as the company apparently seeks to make its bestseller lists more family friendly.

But thousands of users have voiced concern after the seemingly random application of the new rules not only affected a number of high-profile authors, including Annie Proulx, EM Forster and Jeanette Winterson, but also led to thousands of gay and lesbian titles being stripped of their sales rank, regardless of their sexual content.

This family friendly approach has also impacted romance and erotica authors.

So. To anyone out there still thinking of buying from Amazon - why?! There are alternatives.

Some other things:

Smart Bitches googlebomb Amazon.

Of course, DA and the Smart Bitches are amongst those leading the charge against this, the latest in a string of Amazon-related scandals (and are, thrillingly, linked to in this Guardian article).

Tuesday, 7 April 2009


Gab deadline just about met. Okay, almost met.

I need to go somewhere dark and quiet and lie down now.

Why is it so hard to talk about romance as a genre? Sometimes I think it's too big and unwieldy a topic to grapple with. Which is why I so greatly appreciate posts that do. Such as -

The Subgenre Slide

Is Happy For Now Happy Enough?

What is Romance Really All About?

The Romance Insider, the Reader, the Fan, and the Academic Researcher

Generation Gap

French Dressing, from which:

The real conflict in genre fiction, I believe, is the endless argument between the helpless part of us that wants – that has -- to go there once more, and the wisecracking intellectual part of us that can’t quite believe we’ve been suckered, again and forever seduced by the worn old props and operetta costumes.

Cute ferret for Tumperkin's benefit.

Saturday, 28 March 2009


Amazon chief Jeff Bezos has gone back to the floor, working in a company warehouse (or 'fulfillment center'...) for a week.

According to The Guardian:

And you know what Amazon is like about work in its warehouses. Back in April 2001, the Guardian noted that the retailer had been accused of running "the worst of old economy working practices" by staff in the UK...

...the issue surfaced again last Christmas, when the Sunday Times reported that staff at the same location - Marston Gate near Milton Keynes - were required to work seven days a week and "punished" for being ill (where staff with a sick note received a "penalty" point; six points meant dismissal). The quotas for packing - 140 items an hour, which is only slightly below the 5 items per two minutes of 2001. Collecting items for packing can mean walking up to 14 miles during a shift.

Now, I've been wondering if my anti-Amazon stance, which includes total boycott of the store, was a little extreme. This article has firmed my resolve for a little longer. Thanks!

Sunday, 15 March 2009



Passion and angst seethe in equal measure from the tortured hero of Lisa Kleypas’s latest historical. Kev Merripen is a gypsy taken in by the generous and loving Hathaway family when his own tribe left him for dead. Feral, miserable, sullen and instinctively violent, the only light in Kev’s black existence is the beautiful and angelic Winnifred Hathaway. Despite the strong connection between them, Kev is determined to keep their relationship platonic, for Winifred is an invalid. Moreover, Kev hates himself (no low-born Kleypas hero thinks he’s good enough for the pure-bred Kleypas heroine…) and doesn’t consider himself worthy of Win.

Of course, Winifred is equally in love with Kev, and so she resolves to get better and win him over. The story takes off when Winifred returns from a two-year sojourn in a French clinic, restored to rude health and towing with her a handsome and admiring doctor…

For all that Kev Merripen is a larger than life, angst-ridden hero very much in the mould of Heathcliff, for me, Winifred is the standout character. Despite her delicate frame, fragility and ‘purity of character’– this girl is a total minx. In the first chapter alone she has maneovered Kev into kissing her and then – seconds later – she’s groping his man-bits like a seasoned pro. Honestly, at times, it’s as though Kev is the delicate virgin.

With such a decisive, take-charge heroine and a completely bonkers (though endearingly so) hero, there’s plenty to like here. Let’s say, 85% of this book is excellent and deserves praise for it’s relatively fresh storyline (it’s unusual, I think, in a romance when both characters are completely and intensely in love right from the beginning). On top of that Kleypas is amusing and deft with her plotting - I read this book in one sitting.

So, naturally, I’m just going to concentrate on the negatives.

Once in a lifetime love…

For this story to really work, we have to believe that Kev and Winifred are soulmates – connected powerfully, almost preternaturally. Their passion must be surpassing; one cannot live without the other. This is done wonderfully by Kleypas – when Win is close to death, Kev is pretty much on the brink of ending his own existence, Romeo and Juliet style (see: bonkers). They are both given to grand declarations –

“I love you,” she said, wretchedly. “And if I were well, no power on earth could keep me away from you. If I were well, I would take you into my bed, and I would show you as much passion as any woman could -”


He jerked her upward. “All the fires of hell could burn for a thousand years and it wouldn’t equal what I feel for you in one minute of the day. I love you so much there is no pleasure in it. Nothing but torment."

When they kiss and mess around, it’s suitably hot and theatrical. But the effect is diluted considerably by the fact that there are at least four other couples who feel exactly the same way. How are we supposed to believe in the rabid, all-consuming, once-in-a-lifetime, Heathcliff-on-the-moors type love when everyone’s at it? It becomes a little – yes, pedestrian.

And therein lies my second gripe. The recurring couples from previous novels – AKA the Authorial Cash Cow.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m one of those readers who is quite happy to leave a couple to their happy ever after – no drippy epilogue for me, thank you. I’ve enjoyed the journey, but I’m happy to get off the train once everything is neatly tied up. So it’s endlessly boring for me when characters from previous books turn up blissfully in love, often swelling with child, sharing tender looks and having (totally boring) sex, and generally chewing up the scenery – because here’s the thing: I don’t care. You’re married, you’re happy, you’re boring. Where’s the drama? Where’s the tension, where’s the story progression?

At best, it’s indulgent. At worst, it’s cynical.

I’m talking to you, SEP, Laurens, Kleypas, Balogh and [insert culprit of your choice].

The only time I would be interested if there was trouble in paradise.

Or is it just me?

Anyway, a B+ and a thank you to Ms Kleypas for such a pleasant first step back into romance.

Thursday, 12 March 2009


I have a guilty confession to make.

It’s been two months since I read my last romance.

I have no explanation for this, except that I’ve been very busy, and perhaps I needed a break from reading. When I do read, I feel like short things, like short stories, or news articles, or better yet, magazines with lots of pictures… (The US Vogue with Michelle Obama, fyi, was deeply disappointing).

And, reading less, I haven’t been blogging or doing my regular blog checks. So I feel as though I’ve fallen off the face of the earth.

I identify myself as a reader, but I’m not reading anymore. What does that make me?

In a panic, I have picked up a couple of books. I’ve got Dreams from my Father, which is very hard to avoid at the moment. I did my best, but it’s my book group’s latest choice, so -. Then there’s 2066 (I can already tell it’s going to be one of those books, the ones that sit, untouched, on my shelf, forever weighing on my conscience). I’m also determined to finish Watchmen before I go and see the movie…

But what about romance?

There are different kinds of romance readers. I fit into the always-read-it category. Not the other kind, the fully grown adult finding a genre they had hitherto overlooked. I read my first romance was I was indecently young. It has had an indelible effect on my tastes.

These days, I find that I’m less interested in following a story from beginning to end; I’m skimming. I look for high concepts, high stakes and lots of gratuitous sex. Naturally, this doesn’t lend itself to quality reading, so I end up feeling more jaded than ever.

I feel like the hero in an old school romance: burned out, tired of empty, meaningless sex with women (books) whose names (title) he can't remember the morning after. He just wants the love of a good woman. I just want to read general fiction.

Do I need a break? Am I done with this genre?

Well, despite all my angsting, I don’t think so. I think I needed this break, but I’ve found my curiousity piquing this past week – Nalini Singh’s latest release sounds intriguing. I agree with Tumperkin’s assessment of her Psy books ("Good author. Excellent writer. Not for me"), and never ventured beyond the first. A new series might bring a fresh dynamic between the heroine and hero, which was my biggest gripe with her last one.

What about Carolyn Jewel? The premise of Scandal sounds interesting.

More promising yet, I picked up a Kleypas today and I’m tentatively looking forward to reading it. (Don't let me down, Kleypas!)

I'm not ready to quit yet, but I wonder if it's possible to reach saturation with a preferred genre. Has it happened to anyone else? Is there a remedy for this, the mother of all reading ruts?

Friday, 9 January 2009


In her excellent post, CJ observed the hugeness of Kresley Cole’s plots. Everything is so extreme. The stakes are high, the obstacles to HEA are near insurmountable; everything is larger than life, particularly the heroes.

Take the first sentence of Dark Desires After Dusk:
Cadeon Woede came upon the headless bodies of his foster father and brothers first, the three slain in a desperate defense of their home
Naturally, Cade blames himself for the gruesome death of his foster family, and he blames himself (and is blamed by others) for the loss of his brother’s kingdom, now ruled by an evil sorcerer who - naturally, he's evil - brutally oppresses its people. So Cade is like the guiltiest person in the world.

To top it off, the only way he can win back the kingdom and redeem himself is by grossly betraying his fated female.

Holly the heroine is also The Vessel (see previous post) and she will bear a child of ultimate evil or ultimate good, depending on the father.

The extremes don’t stop there. Cade is a larger-than-life, slobbish, hedonistic, philandering rage demon. Holly is a tightly repressed virgin mathematician with OCD.

Cade is huge, and he has horns. Holly is a tiny, demure blond.

And so on.

But it’s all very compelling: of course it is. Mix in a little self-referential humour and most times even a grumpy reader is disarmed. A little.
Her brows drew together. “Wait. I’m called a Vessel? Could there be a more derogatory term? By its very definition, a vessel is of no importance compared to its contents… Couldn’t these Lorekind have gone with baby maker or bun oven?

“I lobbied for cargo hold, but just lost out.”

Reading the Immortals is like going on an old fashioned adventure: there are quests, and magical swords and maps marked with X; there are talismans and ancient curses and journeys to the outer reaches of the world (okay, Alaska).

In another nod-and-wink moment, Holly likens her predicament to being in a computer game (“Level one, defeat pervert. Level two, engage army of revenants…")

Throw in some wacky side characters, like the soothsayer Valkyrie Nix (or, Nucking Futs Nix), who enters the story with characteristic élan:
Half an hour had dragged by when a red Bentley pulled up behind them, hopping the curb in an alignment-wrecking jounce…. There were dings in the body, mud all over the tires, smoke tendrils rising from the hood, and at least two bullet holes. A Garfield doll was stuck to the rear window.

That Garfield makes the description gold.

What you get is a perfect cupcake* of a story; light and fluffy with a dramatic swirl of icing on top. Just don't think too hard about the ingredients.

A solid B for Dark Desires After Dusk, though all my points in the post below are still there, niggling. I suppose there’s a lot to be said for charm and slapstick, and a personal chemistry with the writing that can make allowances for all kinds of wrong.

*The cupcake analogy might be flawed, but I spent half an hour looking at cupcakes on the internet. Who knew?

Oooh: Alien cupcakes!

Is anyone else hungry?

Thursday, 8 January 2009


Have you ever read a book in a bad tempered sort of way, picking out faults and trying very hard not to be won over?

I’ve been doing that a lot recently, and the latest victim of my reading blues was Kresley Cole. This was particularly sad as I truly enjoyed her Immortals After Dark series last year; I even glommed.

What set me off (other than a generally grumpy disposition)? The Glossary of Terms preceding the story. In it, The Vessel is described thus
At the cusp of each Ascension, a chosen female will beget a child who will become a warrior of either ultimate evil or of ultimate good –

- depending on the father

(Double gah!)

Way to strip the female of even the faintest whiff of autonomy.

Riled, I continued on and sure enough poor Holly the heroine/ vessel is summarily stripped naked and placed on a ceremonial altar by evil demons, so that she might be raped/ impregnated. In the first twenty pages. Later that night, Holly’s bare legs are ogled on by the hero, who admires their smooth, sleek and toned perfection.

(Yeah, I thought sourly. If I were unexpectedly kidnapped by demons and stripped naked, my legs too would be smooth and sleek and worthy of admiration. Except, no, they wouldn’t.)

Cade, the ne’er do well demon hero veers towards the obnoxious. Any guy who ends the majority of his sentences with a ‘yeah?’ would probably drive me nuts, but then he has the temerity to label an amorous lady bar owner ‘a slag’ to dispel Holly’s suspicions, which – hello, if anyone’s a slag, it would be the unrepentantly lecherous and horny Cade, whose reputation as a man-slut precedes him.

But it’s different for boys.

Cade also has the cheek to say:
“For the record, male Lorekind have higher opinions of females than human males do. The playing field’s more equal in our world.”

This coming from a breed of Demon who ‘claims his female’ by turning fully into his demon form and biting her into submission… plus, Vessel, anyone?

The other thing that really irked was all the rampant consumption that goes on between the covers of an Immortals novel. Burbury, million dollar sports cars, Ipods, Wiis, Bentleys, and expensive silk and lace undergarments that are the staple of any self-respecting virgin heroine’s attire.

I found myself hoping Holly and Cade are affected by the global financial crisis in a brutal way. (Also tiring: nauseating articles about how the mega-rich are really glum about losing their money.)

And while I’m on my nit-picking rampage – why does Holly have to be delicate?

What exactly is a ‘masculine jaw’?

What is a ‘feminine scent’?

Grumpy Romance reader will stop there.

In tomorrow’s post: why I loved Dark Desires After Dusk despite everything.